Decade in Review: TIFF… home at last

TIFF Bell Lightbox - Atrium by George Pimentel

Pictured: The atrium at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (photo by George Pimentel)

Welcome to Year Zero of TIFF

For a brand celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, it’s odd to say this is just the beginning. But in many ways, it is. When the TIFF Bell Lightbox opened its doors in September, it signaled a new era for film and film culture in Canada.

With five cinemas, two galleries, two restaurants, learning studios and, of course, a gift shop, the building stands as monument to the 10 years of dedication and hard work it took to turn the facility into a reality – not a bad way to cap off the end of the decade.

Nor a bad way to start the decade. The beginning of the millennium was the Toronto International Film Festival’s 25th anniversary – a celebration in itself – but it also represented an exciting prospect to take itself to the next level.

“[The year] 2000 marked the realization that if we were going to expand the non-festival activities – our Cinematheque, our Film Reference Library, our children’s festival (Sprockets), ancillary activities and programs – we were going to have to get our own building,” recalls CEO and festival director Piers Handling.

Suddenly, 2000 became more than just a milestone anniversary; it was the year the TIFF team began plotting how to create a new home. Thus began the decade-long journey that saw a gaping chasm in the middle of downtown Toronto transform into a five-storey film complex.

“I think Toronto, from the very early days, really had aspirations to play on the world stage as a festival,” observes Handling.

The industry and the public weren’t the only ones waiting to see what would come of the Lightbox. The world was also watching.

Growing pains
The decision to expand came at a cost – $196 million to be exact. The Reitman family (of Ivan and Jason fame) contributed their land on which to build the new facility, but more support was needed.

Instead of appealing solely to the government and corporate sponsors, TIFF decided on a different approach and began courting individuals who shared a love of film.

“Both [corporate sponsors and government] really, really stepped up to the plate in a major way,” explains Handling. “But we had to go out and cultivate relationships with individuals, total aficionados who had film in their heart and weren’t giving to the festival because of ROI, but because they loved.”

TIFF looked at multi-million dollar campaigns from similar cultural institutions – the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Canadian Opera Company – all of which appealed to their strong donor bases to raise funds.

“It’s a blind love,” says Handling. “They want to see places where those paintings can be hung.” Similarly, the org hoped to share film-related material, as well as curate its own, in its future galleries.

It wasn’t easy, even with the confidence that the festival’s high profile would surely help raise the money. “We did, eventually,” he notes. “But it was harder and longer than what we thought it was going to be.” The ambitious fundraising campaign was nearly complete at press time.

The TIFF Bell Lightbox arrives as the industry emerges from the economic rubble of the last few years. But Handling has noticed a shift recently, especially with many indie filmmakers from around the world who are seeking screen time.

“It’s become increasingly difficult for that work to be shown commercially,” he says. “There’s a huge contraction in terms of number of films and it’s very difficult to find financing for mid-range budget productions ($5 million to $30 million). Those films are coming under an increasing jeopardy.”

They’re also the films that festivals such as TIFF, Cannes and Sundance depend on, and Handling says the “survivors” are turning to them in a bigger way for positioning and profile.

Opportunities for smaller distributors that may have had difficulty finding screen time are now finding themselves with new options.

The survey says
Response from the industry was mixed, notes Handling, including from festival supporters like Famous Players and Cineplex. But TIFF wasn’t competing for product in daily exhibition, rather intending to provide complementary programming: Canadian films, foreign language films and documentaries, in particular.

Exhibitors weren’t the only ones with doubts. “To be honest, among the local donor group, I think some of them were mystified why a festival that lasted 10 days needed a year-round building,” he says. “Very few of them were aware of our year-round activities, Sprockets and everything else – they were just so aware of the festival.”

The new space has opened up new opportunities for creative. That programming includes the Tim Burton exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art in New York which opened in November, the first MoMA show to visit Toronto in more than 20 years.

Handling hopes to attract the tourist crowds, as well as use these events to reignite the city’s interest in film in the months following the festival.

What made it an even harder sell was that there was no other comparable facility – sure, there was the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, The British Film Institute in London, Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, but as Handling points out, “they don’t quite do what we do.”

Now that it’s open for business, he’s confident that doubters will come to the other side. “The opinion makers will come around and say, ‘Now I finally get it. Now I understand what the building is all about.’”

Ideas are flowing for future exhibitions, most of which could not be divulged at press time. But Handling did share with Playback that TIFF is planning a David Cronenberg exhibition in the same vein as Burton’s.

The org has owned Cronenberg material for 20 years and it’s visited the likes of Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo and Sao Paulo, though never shown in Toronto. Handling and his team are also keeping their eyes peeled for future shows suitable for the Lightbox’s galleries.

The future is bright, if not for a few grey spots as TIFF and the rest of the industry grapples with how technological advances will have an impact on film.

“I am of the opinion that this world will only help us,” states Handling. “It will create greater awareness and more desire and demand to actually come to the festival to see films, to the Bell Lightbox to see films and the artists themselves.

“None of us have our head in the sand. You just have to make the right decisions and be cautious.”

The next generation is also a big question mark. Will they want to leave the house to watch a film in a theater? Time will tell, but Handling remains optimistic, having noticed anecdotally that current festival-goers also seem to be younger.

It’s encouraging for TIFF and for its new home. So what comes next?

“The aspirations are literally to be the global center for film culture in the world,” says Handling. “That’s the next 10 year goal. Filmmakers, critics and audiences would look to us the same way they’d look to the Louvre or the Tate Modern or the Met as a place to go to indulge in their love of film.”