Photo by Reza Vaziri from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
The Toronto International Film Festival has been over long enough for us to get our bearings back, so we’ve finally had some time to ruminate on what has almost certainly been the most controversial festival in recent memory. The festival kicked off in an inglorious style with Bruce Kirkland’s damning piece in the Sun, where he loudly proclaimed that “the Toronto International Film Festival is no longer the people’s film festival” after a poor experience being passed over for tickets for the gala screening of Passchendaele in favour of donors.
Co-director of the festival and CEO of the Film Festival Group Piers Handling responded directly to the comments made by Kirkland shortly after, arguing in the paper that it was still “a people’s festival,” and for the reality that “donors do have to be treated differently because they are crucial, just like the corporate partners”—but the general feeling failed to improve thanks to other issues. Writers including Rex Reed of the New York Observer stated that the festival had tested “patience, I.Q.’s, trash resistance, and bladder control”: “Film festivals,” he continued, “have good years and bad years. For Toronto, this is a bad one.”
Even Eye‘s Jason Anderson (who admits he is the “new owner of a one-bedroom ‘Angelina Jolie’ suite in the Lightbox’s condo tower”) wondered whether “the fest has finally swollen to truly unmanageable and unfeasible proportions.” His coworker Marc Weisblott of the Scrolling Eye blog was far blunter: “Worst film festival ever.”
With largely negative press, one would think that brand-new co-director for the festival Cameron Bailey might be feeling the heat. Not so. We talked to Bailey as the festival ended and found him upbeat (if a little tired; we all were by that point).
“I think it went really well,” he told us. In comparison to the middling to negative opinions of the overall quality of the programming this year from many journalists (opinions we mostly share), Bailey spoke instead the audience reactions he’d seen.
“I’ve been hearing great word from the audiences,” he beamed. “I’ve run into many people who were moved by some of the performances, for example the screening of Skin [one of the films programmed by Bailey himself] where we brought the real person behind the true story to the screening for a Q&A with the director. The personal responses to the films have been really strong.”
Not that Bailey has ignored the response to the festival from the media. On the charge that the festival is bloated, he argues, “We have fifteen fewer films than last year. We’ve put a lid on the number of films we’ll show, because we’re getting more and more films submitted every year—this year we had over 4200 films submitted—and there will be more submitted next year! We made a conscious decision after last year’s festival to pull back on the number of films we’re showing.”
“If you’re seeing 4200 films—and those are just the films that are submitted, our programmers go all over the world to discover more—and in total from that you’re selecting only 312 films (including shorts) to show, it’s a pretty rigorous selection process. There are a lot of films that don’t make it.”
“We are a smaller festival than we were last year, and I do think we’re keeping the quality high,” he continued, claiming that reviews have been “by and large positive,” before returning to the topic of the audience response—particularly how pleased he has been with the audience response to the films he’s personally championed. “I program about thirty films, and I’d say there have just been some great moments. I was at two of the screenings of Teza, the Ethiopian film from Haile Gerima; just to see people talk to him about the film afterwards, or even embrace him—that’s one of the examples when something I’ve programmed has connected with an audience in a way perhaps you or I wouldn’t have expected.”
Of course, the difficulty (and expense) of getting to see films in the first place is something that’s been highlighted too, and on that Bailey pointed us towards Handling’s original statements on the festival, but added, “One of the things I want to emphasis is that for the first time we have a number of activities—programming, screenings, concerts, events—that are free. And we’ve never done that before. And so I think to a casual moviegoer—a regular member of the audience in Toronto, who probably isn’t going to take their vacation to spend the week watching 50 movies, but is instead maybe just curious about the festival, there are so many ways that they can take part in the festival that are absolutely free. My sense is that we’re doing more to bring a wider audience of the festival than ever.”
Photo by C Lapid from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
He admitted that the festival “does need to do more to plug in to the city in as strong a way as possible,” and expressed his delight at being able to help move that forward with events including the free screening of People’s Choice Award–winning film Slumdog Millionaire at the Elgin.
In addition, he stated unequivocally that the festival had “held ticket prices steady from last year.”
“There is pressure to raise it every year just from inflation and as costs increase, but we held prices and that was a conscious choice.”
On other issues people may have had—confusing line-ups at the new AMC location, for example—Bailey was pragmatic. “There are always kinks to work out. One of the things we still have to work out is getting people from the ground floor up the escalators efficiently, but audiences seemed to love the fact that it was right on Yonge/Dundas Square, and that we had a lot of stuff happening in the square this year. It seemed like a place people would want to hang out all day.”
“Once this is over we sit down and we do a full post-mortem of the festival with all of the departments of the group, and it won’t be until we’ve done that we know what we’re going to change or do differently next year,” he continued. “But we’re all paying attention to what’s working well, what could work better.”
“The fact that this year we didn’t raise any prices, and we held free events I think (I would hope!) would reflect that we have an interest in offering our audience the best value for money. We know money is tight for everybody these days, and we want to make sure the audience can take part in the festival in whatever way they can—in the best way we can.”
Photo of Cameron Bailey by Michael Buckner/WireImage for the Toronto International Film Festival Group.