TORONTO — Drive-in screenings, virtual red carpets, a scaled-down slate: The curtain will still rise on this year’s Toronto International Film Festival but it will be a much different affair than the usual annual movie marathon, as the COVID-19 pandemic presents logistical and financial challenges.
On Wednesday organizers revealed plans for a physical and digital hybrid version of the prestigious festival, one day after announcing the TIFF organization has taken a financial hit from the pandemic and had to lay off 31 full-time staff and cut salaries.
The reimagined 45th edition is now slated to run Sept. 10-19, ending one day earlier than originally planned, with a lineup of 50 new feature films, five programs of shorts and an online industry conference.
It will also have physical and digital screenings, outdoor experiences, press conferences and Q-and-A’s with cast and filmmakers.
TIFF did not make executives available for an interview Wednesday and didn’t provide specific details on how such events will unfold.
But given pandemic restrictions on venues, gatherings and travel, it’s clear this will be not be the usual extravaganza of hundreds of films and a city crawling with stars, cinephiles and celebrity watchers.
Films on the docket include Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, Halle Berry’s directorial debut “Bruised,” and “Concrete Cowboy” by Ricky Staub, starring Idris Elba, Jharrel Jerome, and Lorraine Toussaint.
Over the first five days, the full slate of films will premiere as physical, socially-distanced screenings that adhere to safety protocols set by authorities to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Movie theatres in Toronto that where shut down due to the novel coronavirus, including TIFF Bell Lightbox, haven’t opened yet but are expected to when provincial and municipal health authorities give the go-ahead.
TIFF hopes the event will serve “as a beacon of hope for Toronto, for filmmakers, and for the international film industry.”
“Our teams have had to rethink everything, and open our minds to new ideas,” Cameron Bailey, TIFF co-head and artistic director, said in a statement.
TIFF has also “listened to this year’s urgent calls for greater representation of underrepresented voices,” Bailey added.
“You’ll see that this year at the festival. And we have watched as audiences have embraced cinema’s ability to transport them through screens of all sizes.”
TIFF executive director and co-head Joana Vicente said they “tapped into the original spirit of the Festival from when it began in 1976” as their “guiding light.”
The organization is working with New Zealand-based Shift72 to launch a digital platform to host screenings and other events for the festival, allowing it to reach audiences beyond Toronto. It’s not clear if the digital screenings for the public will be geoblocked to a certain region, like they were in the recent online version of Toronto’s Hot Docs festival.
The online industry conference will include screenings for press and industry, access to buyers and filmmakers for interviews, and networking opportunities.
“I think festivals continuing online is really healthy,” Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar-nominated director of the new series “Normal People” that’s on CBC Gem, said in a recent interview.
“It keeps that connection with an audience and it keeps filmmakers’ work being shown. But it’s not the same…. Meeting other human beings in real spaces and making connections — that is irreplaceable.”
Toronto director Ali Weinstein, who recently debuted her documentary “#Blessed” at the Hot Docs online festival, said it’s possible her film reached a bigger audience virtually.
“But the thing is, because I don’t get that audience experience, I have no idea like what people thought of the film,” she said in a recent interview.
“It feels like there’s just like a total disconnect and you don’t really get the same type of like feedback.”
TIFF said the festival’s in-person version will be contingent on the province’s reopening framework, stressing its priority is the health and well-being of filmgoers and Toronto residents.
Film festivals around the world have been grappling with the pandemic, with some cancelling their events altogether and others switching to digital versions or postponing.
TIFF has been saying since April it’s been planning some type of physical festival for September. While the Venice Film Festival is now set to take place in early September, France’s Cannes Film Festival in May had to be cancelled.
Cannes still announced its 2020 lineup as a badge of honour for the films, which included “Ammonite.”
Other Cannes titles bound for TIFF include Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama “Another Round,” starring Mads Mikkelsen; “Spring Blossom,” the debut film by director Suzanne Lindon of France; and “True Mothers” by director Naomi Kawase of Japan.
The TIFF lineup also has the Mexico/Canada co-production “Fauna” from director Nicolas Pereda, and “Good Joe Bell” by director Reinaldo Marcus Green of the U.S.
More titles will be announced over the summer.
The festival also said it’s planning a virtual version of its annual TIFF Tribute Awards, which launched last year and honour “outstanding contributors to the film industry.” The 2020 honourees have yet to be announced.
Also new is a slate of designated TIFF Ambassadors, comprising 50 filmmakers and actors, including Ava DuVernay, Taika Waititi, and Nicole Kidman. They’ll “help TIFF deliver a strong festival this year,” the organization said, but didn’t elaborate on what they’ll be doing.
TIFF has also added a new component to its Media Inclusion Initiative, which is into its third year and aims to increase diversity amongst the festival’s press corps. This year, companies and individuals can gift industry access to 250 underrepresented emerging filmmakers from around the world.
As a non-profit organization offering year-round programming, TIFF has corporate and government partners and generates more than $200 million in annual economic activity for the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario.
The festival is also a key market to launch Canadian film content, and is considered a springboard for titles that go on to Oscar glory.
When the TIFF Bell Lightbox and other venues shut down during the pandemic, TIFF launched the Stay-at-Home Cinema program in partnership with Bell Media’s Crave streaming platform.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2020.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press