The exit interview: TIFF’s Piers Handling

With the Toronto International Film Festival set to kick off its 43rd edition, its outgoing CEO Piers Handling considers his legacy and the festival's future.
Piers Handling

After 36 years with the Toronto International Film Festival and 24 years as its CEO, Piers Handling will step down at the end of the year. While he says it’s business as usual until then, Playback spoke with the veteran film scholar and programmer about his greatest achievements, TIFF controversies and the future of the festival in a rapidly evolving industry.

PB: You’re departing at a difficult moment for the film industry (declining box-office revenues, increased competition from VODs, etc). What strategies has the festival devised to respond to these challenges? 

PH: It is a disruptive moment. I don’t think there’s a magic formula. I think we just have to be very smart in terms of who our audience is and speak to that audience in a way that’s meaningful to them. I think there’ll be more of a need for [big] films to create profile. And as a result, of course, that brings the major talent. But I still think that there is a need, excitement and desire to get out of your house to gather together. What’s more challenging of course is the building [TIFF Bell Lightbox], the regular year-round programming.

It’s been eight years since we opened the door [to the Lightbox]. It’s a sharp learning curve. We’re trying to work out what it means to a younger generation. I think it’s important to do the live experience with guests, be it a lecture, film artist or a director. Audiences want to see people talking and that will be one of the foundations on which the organization will move forward. We’re also trying to [figure out if we] can partner with somebody for a streaming service. Can we do more in terms of getting a lot of the material that we value out into the marketplace, so you’re not just restricted to the physical attendance and physical building?

You were the driving force behind the Lightbox, which took 10 years to finance and cost nearly $200 million. You’ve said building year-round programming is a challenge the Lightbox is facing going forward. Is it bringing in the audience numbers you expected?
I think it’s certainly attracting the audience we expected because we did a very, very rigorous business plan before we moved into the building to make sure that we could actually pay for the dream. Everybody wants to have more people. We want more people at the festival, too. But we went in realistically knowing the comparatives when it comes to theatrical: the Cineplexes of this world and what their attendance was. We are where we expected to be. It’s going to be a long uphill battle in the same way that it was for the festival in the early days. It wasn’t easy then either.

Looking back 43 years later it’s like, ‘Wow! Was it really that small? Was it really that much of a struggle?’ I don’t think one can expect instant success with anything. It’s nose to the grindstone, especially at a point in time where there’s so much disruption going on. It’s going to take a while to – not to become successful because I think it’s successful already – but become an essential part of the city where people look to TIFF Bell Lightbox in the same way that they look to the festival.

It seems that TIFF has always faced some criticism that it’s outgrown something (its founding values, its core audience, etc). How do you respond to those criticisms?
I think what it speaks to is an extremely dedicated group of people who attend what we do and really care about it. We [built] an audience from nothing to a considerable audience and so they care about what we do. Some of the criticism or input is well-founded. And some of it we’re happy to respond to. Obviously an organization changes in the course of its life. Everyone has great nostalgia for what it was like in the early days: rough and ready and loose. It was a different kind of experience and wasn’t it fun? You didn’t have the same lineups, the same corporate presence, the same media presence. The list goes on and on and on. But as an event grows it establishes a different kind of personality, in the same way that an individual does.

How would you define TIFF’s raison d’être going forward?
The core values of the institution are very much based on the public of the city. It was always a public-facing festival from day one. We’ve always tried to privilege the public in all of our decision making and it always comes back to that. That runs everywhere from trying to make the festival bigger, to increasing the size of the footprint, to building a building so you’re in touch with your audience not just 11 days a year but every single day of the year. The core value of the institution, I would say, is to create a film culture that an audience can see themselves in and wants to go and explore.

Any words of advice for your successor?
Have a vision of what you see for the future. Be flexible and listen hard to everyone around you.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Playback