A motorcade of Hollywood glitterati and regular flow of cinematic hype descends on the Toronto International Film Festival this week, but a dark cloud looms over the celebration because the battered movie industry faces crucial questions on its future.
Three years have passed since TIFF last held a totally in-person film festival and in that point the world of movie-going has undergone a seismic shift.
Movie theatres, once a reliable a part of the film business, have slipped into financial uncertainty while the streaming industry has picked up a number of the slack. Movies that when had a six- to eight-month road through awards season can now debut at home inside weeks of hitting cinemas.
If television is the centrepiece of the cultural conversation, some observers say that raises questions on whether TIFF — or some other film festival — holds the cultural heft it once did.
Amil Niazi, showrunner of CBC’s podcast Pop Chat, says the thrill surrounding the return of TIFF this 12 months comes “under this umbrella of questioning and consideration” for what it means to be considered one of the world’s biggest film festivals.
“There are increasingly more questions on the aim of an in-person festival … and whether that type of pomp and circumstance, glitz and glamour, really has a spot on this industry.” Niazi said.
After holding mostly digital screenings the past two years, organizers at TIFF seem determined to prove an in-person festival is the strategy to go. Over the 11 days starting Thursday, the festival will host film premiere parties, Q-and-A’s, in addition to live shows and pedestrian-luring activations from corporate sponsors along King Street West, or Festival Street.
Inside cinemas, TIFF returns to its pre-pandemic size with a lineup of greater than 200 feature movies.
Harry Styles, Oprah Winfrey and Daniel Craig shall be among the many names on the town for film premieres, while Taylor Swift swings through Toronto to debate and screen her 13-minute short “All Too Well,” which debuted online last November.
Several film selections pays tribute to the communal virtues of cinema. Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” and Sam Mendes’ movie house drama “Empire of Light” each construct a plot across the appeal of the silver screen, while Chandler Levack’s “I Like Movies” unfolds at a Canadian video store chain.
Those nostalgic reflections are also a reminder of how quickly popular viewing habits grow to be folklore.
After months of COVID-19 closures, audiences have returned to theatres in significant numbers, but not enough to succeed in levels before the pandemic.
Even “Top Gun: Maverick” breaking records this summer hasn’t eased concerns. Besides a handful of superhero movies and sequels, few movies have attained breakout status, and probably the most anticipated titles coming out of film festivals — including David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future” and George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing” — have been dead on arrival on the box office.
Meanwhile, a seemingly bottomless supply of money from technology firms has allowed Netflix and other streaming giants to gobble up prizeworthy festival titles, leaving smaller indie distributors to crumble under their very own financial debts.
All of this casts uncertainty over the long run shape of the industry as TIFF mounts its comeback.
Claire Peace-McConnell isn’t convinced any of those outside forces will leave a dent in TIFF’s repute. The top of Canadian content development at distributor VVS Movies said the festival understands that while the flicks are its essential event, it’s also about “all the extras.”
“Being within the room when Steven Spielberg has a world premiere, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said, pointing to the upcoming world premiere of “The Fabelmans” on Saturday.
“I believe anyone that claims film festivals are dead, they should go to that screening they usually must feel the energy in that room. Because that’s irreplaceable.”
But while the promise of a brush with fame may draw big audiences to some public screenings, it’s the remaining of the TIFF selections that face a less certain fate.
Many Canadian arts events have struggled with unpredictable attendance since their spaces reopened over the past 12 months and it’s unclear what number of festivalgoers will turn up for small art movies.
Powys Dewhurst, a movie director who also oversees strategy for industry events, said that casts uncertainty over all arts gatherings — not only TIFF.
“Lots of these various institutions are having a troublesome time during pandemic filling seats,” he said.
“I believe there’s no real strategy to tell what that’s going to appear to be at this stage.”
Pushing ahead, TIFF organizers seem determined to forged aside any stark reminders of the pandemic.
Gone are the drive-ins where couples canoodled within the privacy of their SUVs, while outdoor movies under the celebs have been reduced to classic movies as a substitute of premieres.
Even the virtual screenings that won over latest festivalgoers are largely fading to black. Only two dozen titles can be found to rent at home after Sept. 13.
Cameron Bailey, the chief executive of TIFF, defended the small list of at-home viewing titles, saying in some cases that selection is made by the film’s producers and distributors.
“(They) are very cautious about presenting their movies online,” he said, pointing to aspects equivalent to piracy.
“The last two years after we didn’t have much selection, the rights holders were as co-operative as they could possibly be by way of allowing us to screen some online across Canada.”
Fewer or no virtual options is a mistake for any film festival that hopes to remain relevant, suggested Candice Frederick, senior culture reporter on the Huffington Post in Recent York.
“Moving forward, I believe every major festival must have that capability,” she said.
“There shall be a considerable number of people that only experience festivals virtually, so I believe that’s integral. The concept of not having that platform will at all times be a mistake.”
Frederick is confident TIFF will maintain its appeal, whilst the broader industry faces unprecedented strife.
“There’s still enough reverence for the theatre. People will attend a festival, perhaps not in the very same way that they did previously, and perhaps not whilst often, but … people still wish to go,” she said.
Niazi agrees, but suggests a number of the trends may ultimately dim the spectacle surrounding TIFF.
“If it’s really the triumphant return that it’s espousing to be, I believe (TIFF) will actually be a much smaller, more tightly controlled version of itself,” she added.
— With files from Nicole Thompson