How to have a film festival now

A man in a blue suit sitting on a chair.

Toronto International Film Festival’s Artistic Director and member Cameron Bailey discusses the forward-thinking ways in which festivals can thrive in a post-pandemic world

By Britt Julious    Above image: Cameron Bailey (Matt Barnes)   Thursday 8 October, 2020   Long read

A film festival is more than just a place to view films; it is a place to network, break through, and be surprised and delighted. But how does one organise and hold a film festival – one of the world’s largest – in the middle of a global pandemic. Just look to the efforts of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

This year, the festival celebrates its 45th year and original plans were focused around this feat. According to TIFF Artistic Director, Cameron Bailey, by March of this year its organisers were already in the process of talking to film-makers and companies about the movies they wanted to see at the festival this month. But once they entered lockdown like the rest of the world, they had to rethink their plans. 

In the early days of the pandemic, lockdown seemed like a temporary delay of only a few weeks. Organisers planned to reopen things again in April and looked to spring film festivals like Cannes to gauge their next steps. ‘We began to realise that we needed to keep our audiences close to us. We needed to stay engaged with them online almost right away,’ says Bailey. The festival launched an initiative called ‘Stay-at-Home Cinema’ at the end of March in partnership with Crave. Audiences could watch a movie together on Crave with a special guest from the film – the first screening of The Princess Bride featured Mandy Patinkin. They also launched the digital TIFF Lightbox where people could view ‘TIFF-style films’ they might have seen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in person. 

But COVID-19, as we’ve come to learn in these subsequent months, is a fickle disease. Eliminating it from the general population (especially in countries with far more lax social-distancing policies like the United States) has not been easy. Festival organisers needed to pivot and think more long term.

Organisers of film festivals are often looking to ‘score wins’, says Bailey, by screening the most anticipated films first. The movies launching into awards season out of festivals are the ones festivals often crave the most. But this year was different, because more was at stake. Their first plan of action was to speak with their colleagues at other autumn film festivals, including Venice, New York and Telluride, about how they could respond to this moment.
A man and a woman in medieval dress in the countryside.
The Princess Bride
‘The idea of competing for film premieres among the four major fall film festivals just seemed less relevant, so we talked more about collaborating instead,’ says Bailey. ‘Now, our job is different. It’s no longer about competing with each other. Our job is to support these films and film-makers. When there’s a hurricane, you open your doors, you don’t close them.’

This year, for example, the new Chloé Zhao film, Nomadland, will play at Venice, Toronto and New York, and was on the list of films Telluride would have invited this year. The festivals worked in collaboration with Searchlight Pictures, the film’s distributor, for its multi-festival release. ‘It was essentially just a sign of our commitment to Chloé Zhao – who we think is a terrific film-maker – to this particular film, which I loved,’ says Bailey. 

Inspired by their early lockdown initiatives and to counterbalance this loss, TIFF organisers began working on their own online platform for audiences to view competing films. The festival worked with a company in New Zealand to build a robust digital platform to view every film in the festival with limited time frames and other privacy parameters. 

And although they can no longer hold 1,800-seat viewings for the foreseeable future, in-person viewings have not been completely out of the picture. Technology allows people to watch a movie seemingly anywhere, but the moviegoing experience is inherently a social one. 

‘I think [movies] come alive most when we watch them together, with people we know and people we don’t know. You share that emotion, you share that suspense, you share the laughs, you share the frights,’ says Bailey. ‘When they happen together, I think it’s a more powerful experience. That’s how film-makers make their films – they make them for a collective audience response.’
A smoking woman leaning on the rooftop of a car in the desert.


A woman walking through the desert at sunset.
TIFF organisers wanted to maintain some element of the in-person experience for the film-makers who put so much work into making the selected movies and the audiences who look forward to it every year. This year, organisers worked with local drive-ins along the lakefront to offer festival viewing. They’ve also selected one outdoor seated venue for viewing, too. And a limited number of screenings will take place at the TIFF Bell Lightbox according to the public health authority restrictions of no more than 50 people in a gathering. 

But regardless of how one views this year’s film selection, organisers hope one thing remains the same: a sense of discovery. ‘You’re seeing new films for the first time. You’re often the first public audience to see them,’ says Bailey. ‘We wanted to do that as well and give that sense of urgency of something exciting happening right now that a festival always delivers.’ 

TIFF may be smaller in scale this year, but the implemented changes may make the festival more powerful in its impact. 

‘That’s because we’re going to be everywhere you are,’ adds Bailey. ‘I feel like it will give people the opportunity to feel immersed in the festival in a new way. You can roll out of bed in the morning and sit down with a festival movie with your breakfast if you want. And you can go to bed at night with a festival film as well.’

Times may change, but the long-lasting power of truly great art never does. ‘In the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a lockdown, what I think so much of us crave is connection, and movies can do that in the way any great art [medium] can do,’ says Bailey. ‘When you feel something powerful from watching a film, one of the first things you want to do is tell people about it.’
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