The 45th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, like no other in its history.
No crowds, no celebrities, fewer screenings and bring a mask: welcome to TIFF, the pandemic version.
Instead of rolling out the red carpet at the glitziest theatres in town, the festival will be swinging open the parking lot gates at the drive-in at several locations around town, all part of an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus that has already devastated so many other key cultural events in Toronto and around the world.
While the glamour and glitz will be noticeably toned down this year, the effort continues to bring film to the masses.
“It’s going to be a very different festival but you will still get to see some of the top films of the year first before other audiences see them,” TIFF Artistic Director and Co-Head Cameron Bailey told CP24 Thursday morning.
Tickets are being sold for in person screenings at the TIFF Bell lightbox and at the drive-in locations around town. Ontario Place is hosting three drive-ins: the RBC Lakeside Drive-in, the West Island Open Air Cinema and the OLG Play Stage. Polson Pier is hosting the VISA Skyline Drive-In at CityView.
Festival goers will have to observe infection prevention measures such as distancing and masking.
The festival is also selling tickets for people to take in many of the films and live chats through an online streaming platform. The films can be watched on a home TV by downloading an app and using Apple TV or Google Chromecast or by connecting a computer to your home theatre with an HDMI cable.
“We are hoping that we are also creating moments of surprise and delight and we are creating a conversation because everyone loves to share in the experience of seeing a film together,” TIFF Co-head Joana Vicente told CP24, adding she hopes people will share their experiences of the films on social media.
The Spike Lee directed David Byrne’s American Utopia officially kicked off the festival Thursday night. It documents the former Talking Heads frontman’s 2019 Broadway show of the same name.
Other films screening tonight include No Ordinary Man which chronicles the legacy of Billy Tipton, a 20th century American jazz musician and Trans icon and Under the Open Sky, a redemption drama that follows a middle-aged ex-yakuza adjusting to life after prison.
This year‘s lineup also includes directorial debuts by Vigo Mortensen and Halle Berry. Mortensen directs and stars in Falling, a film about a gay man struggling to care for his homophobic father who is ailing with dementia. Berry stars and directs in Bruised, which follows a former MMA fighter who is struggling to regain custody of her son while also trying to restart her athletic career.
This year’s festival also features a strong lineup of films from Toronto directors such as Charles Officer (Akilla’s Escape) and Emma Seligman (Shiva Baby).
(Virtual) star power on-hand
While stargazers have little chance of catching celebrities on the streets of the Entertainment District or Yorkville this year, they will nonetheless be a part of the festival still.
An industry master class with business and life partners Viola Davis and Julius Tennon led the industry conference Thursday.
The couple stressed the importance of “diversifying” the types of stories that are told about people of colour and those on the periphery.
“If you have a voice, if you have a face, I say the most courageous thing you can do is go for it and not think about its marketability before you even put it out there in the world,” Davis urged fellow artists, stressing that a film doesn’t have to “make $1 billion in order for us to have relevance.”
“We’re just as technically and artistically viable as anyone else,” Davis said.
Tennon added that the stories are “out there. You just have to believe in them.”
Other virtual talks and industry events are scheduled with Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, director Ava DuVernay, Saoirse Ronan and others.
The festival is also amping up its relatively new awards ceremony, the TIFF Tribute Awards, broadcasting it on CTV. Honourees this year include Kate Winslet, Sir Anthony Hopkins and director Chloé Zhao. Pop star Shawn Mendes will also perform. Presenters for the Sept. 15 broadcast will include Olivia Colman, Regina King, Ava DuVernay, Colin Farrell, Jodie Foster, Delroy Lindo, Tabu and others.
Business, but not as usual
While to many people TIFF is about the spectacle of celebrities and film premieres, the festival is also very much about business. Dozens of films are bought and sold every year.
While it’s harder to meet and mingle at a virtual festival, Vicente said she’s encouraged by news that a number of films have already been sold since screenings started yesterday.
The pandemic has hit cultural institutions hard and TIFF itself is no exception. In addition to coping with tight restrictions that have reshaped the festival this year, TIFF has also had to lay off dozens of staff members. The festival has worked with sponsors to try and make sure that those relationships and funding sources don’t dry up in spite of the scaled down festival.
City businesses are also feeling the effects of a scaled-down TIFF.
While large swaths of the Entertainment District have been closed off in recent years in order to accommodate the burgeoning festival, one could drive down King Street almost unimpeded this year.
It’s not just film lovers who are missing TIFF. The glitzy affair is estimated to pump $200 million into the local economy annually.
That money will be sorely missed this year by hotels, bars, restaurants, cabs and other businesses already reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
For a full list of screenings, both in-person and virtual, go to TIFF.net.