An Oral History of TIFF
Forty years later, TIFF has defied the odds and is still going strong. We spoke to the people who know it best to tell the festival's history in their own words.
In 1976, business partners Bill Marshall, Henk Van der Kolk, and Murray “Dusty” Cohl founded the “Festival of Festivals” in an effort to boost the Canadian film industry. In that first year, festival highlights included a retrospective of the New German Cinema and a 90-second preview of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong. To say that the annual event–renamed the Toronto International Film Festival in 1994–has grown would be something of an understatement.
From The Big Chill and Slumdog Millionaire all the way to Score: A Hockey Musical, the Toronto International Film Festival has become the sort of event that can change a movie’s destiny. With the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2010, it became the sort of arts institution that impacts Toronto’s arts and culture scene year-round. And year after year, the festival has consistently ranked as Toronto’s biggest source of international media coverage. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
The Toronto International Film Festival launches on September 8. Before the festival, we spoke to many of its founders, programmers, executives, and participants about the festival’s plucky origins, breakout films, and its impact on Toronto.
Piers Handling (festival director and CEO, 1994-present; programming director, 1987-1993; programmer, 1982-present): It was really put together by cinephiles, cineastes, people who loved film, but they loved film in all its diverse forms. It really wasn’t a single track. When you look at Bill Marshall’s introduction to the very first festival program, he talks about: “There’s something for everyone, but not everything for everyone, but something.”
Henk Van der Kolk (co-founder): We had a specific reason to start the festival, which was wholly selfish. We were working as film producers—Bill and I were film partners. We were doing documentaries and industrials and educational things to stay alive, but what we really wanted to make were feature films. We said, “In this country we’re not being taken seriously at all by the rest of the world. There isn’t a film industry to speak of in Canada.”
Bill Marshall (co-founder): I just thought that this city could have a great film festival, and it would help me, and it should be done right now. I thought everybody would agree, but most people said it’s a stupid idea, nobody will come, nobody will like it, and you shouldn’t bother. I was quite surprised, because I thought it was a no-brainer.
Henk Van der Kolk: Already the capital cost allowance existed at that point, which was instituted by the government for a 100 per cent tax write-off to make feature films, but not too many film producers were using it.
We thought starting a film festival would get the world to notice us. We were a domestic market as far as Hollywood was concerned, and we still are that. It hasn’t really changed, although they’ve since made a whole lot of films here.
Liam Lacey (former Globe and Mail film critic): I interviewed Roger Ebert one time, and he said how he thought it had gone from being the worst-run of all the major festivals to being the best-run festival.
Henk Van der Kolk: Bill and I had a very respectable business together. We went to our bank manager, Jim Hazelwood—his name is carved in my heart—who was the manager at 2 Bloor West, and we asked him for $125,000. He gave it to us on our signatures, because we weren’t that rich that we could actually put up houses. He gave it to us on our personal signatures knowing that we’d pay it back, which we did eventually. But it was that $125,000 that kickstarted the film festival.
Bill Marshall: My job was to think up the programming, and then be the front man, and beat up the press and beat up people who weren’t giving us money. Dusty was our behind-the-scenes guy, very closely related to the international trade press: Variety columnists from Paris and Rome and New York and London, and he had a very close friendship with Roger Ebert, who wasn’t very important until 1975 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.
Chaz Ebert (vice-president of the Ebert Company; widow of Roger Ebert): Dusty Cohl was sort of a larger-than-life figure. He wore a cowboy hat and he used to give out little cowboy pins, and if you wore those it meant that you had been to either the Toronto fest, or later he expanded it to you could wear them when you were at any film fest. That was his signifying mark.
George Anthony (former Toronto Sun entertainment editor): I think his orbit before that was largely political, because he was a real estate guy and a political guy. I had never heard of him. He handed me his business card when we met and it said: “Accomplice.”
Bill Marshall: Henk’s job was to make the trains run on time: getting theatres and hoping you’ve got same number of seats as the audience, and not putting a 500-seat film into a 50-seat theatre and vice-versa, and making sure that all the program books came out.
Henk Van der Kolk: We spent $340,000 or so, but we fell short of that amount. Like, I was expecting $100,000 worth of patrons, for instance—individual patrons, not commercial people—and I was short $70,000.
Bill Marshall: Mostly out of desperation, because I couldn’t get the big movies that I wanted, I had to come up with various ideas like the New German Cinema [retrospective] and Women in Film. Odd little things, like I was down in San Martín on holiday and I met Sergio Leone there, and I got his prints of his stuff. They were all odds and sods, but when you put them all together we made a very interesting avant-garde program. It wasn’t meant to be avant-garde, it was just what I could find.
Henk Van der Kolk: George Anthony—Christ, he was a huge supporter. I couldn’t get the press to give us any ink at all. We had not much credibility for a festival, because Hollywood had no interest in supporting us at all, so we had no Hollywood films in year one. We had no money—we had to get money to make the whole thing happen. What we needed was public support.
Bill Marshall: The Toronto Star [said], “The Festival of Festivals is a stupid name—we’re gonna call it the Toronto Film Festival.” So I said, “Okay—we’ll not give you any free tickets. Bugger off.” Their movie critic, Clyde Gilmour, went on holiday because he wouldn’t want to see movies with the common folks.
Henk Van der Kolk: I’ll never forget, I argued for a couple of hours with somebody who was the editor of one of the major papers, and I said, “Listen, we need help—can you give us a little exposure? Can you say this thing is coming up?” And they said, “No, we cover the news, you’re not news. You’re not news until you actually start.” So there was no support other than from the Toronto Sun, which had George Anthony as the entertainment editor.
Bill Marshall: He and Brian Linehan were the only two considered the sell-outs, because they went to Hollywood junkets and wrote great things. The very moralistic Toronto press said, “That’s not right. You’re encouraging Hollywood pap.”
George Anthony: Dusty wanted me to invite a couple of people to give us star power. I said, “I don’t mind calling them, but honestly, if I say, ‘Would you like to come to a film festival?’—they are working actors, and the answer will be, ‘No, do I have to?’ unless they have a film or a studio is bringing them in.” He said, “No, no, you wouldn’t be asking them if they wanted to come to a film festival—it would be saying to them, ‘We need help—can you help?’” As strange as that may sound, I had not thought of framing it that way.
I called Peter O’Toole in Dublin at home, and he said yes. Donald and Francine Sutherland were living in Paris at the time, and Francine had been in Lumiere with Jeanne Moreau, and she brought Lumiere in the first year of the festival. Francine and Donald came as well, and that was just a great boost: they did panels, they attended opening nights, and they did interviews.
Henk Van der Kolk: Roger Ebert came in year two. He was a friend of Dusty’s who had gotten to know a lot of the press in Cannes. And we hustled those guys: we had an Air Canada deal, and whenever we could we flew them in as part of a sponsorship by Air Canada.
Chaz Ebert: Dusty was actually very good at bringing people together—he had a talent for it. Dusty was a quick study, so he knew that if he wanted to attract more of the filmmakers to the festival that he should try to get people to write about it. How do you get people to write about a festival? You befriend some of the critics who write about film festivals and write about films. They’ll give it more visibility, and then the studios will want to come.
Bill Marshall: The first weekend, we had all these chairs with all the studio heads’ names on them, and they didn’t come. So I went up and down and ratted them out and gave them hell.
Henk Van der Kolk: Even though we didn’t have the American [studios], we had the American press, and they were enormously impressed. They went home and said, “Hey, you guys missed something.” These were significant people: John Simon, Charles Champlin, Rex Reed – these were the top of the heap in the United States, and we had them in Toronto.
Bill Marshall: Charles Champlin, who was the movie critic for the L.A. Times, was here, and he wrote a visceral column called, “Hollywood—you blew it.” When you’re in your own hometown and your wife says, “Harry—what’s going on here?” they pay attention.
So what they did then was say, “Well, we gotta give this something, so let’s find some dogs,” so they tried to pick some dogs. But because they don’t know what’s a dog, they gave us things like Tom Jones. They kept on doing that.
Henk Van der Kolk: We’re entrepreneurs, right? And the entrepreneurial spirit just never allows for failure, y’know? So there was never any thought that we might not make this work. We were going to make it work if it killed us. That’s part of the reason why we said after year three “Hey, we were pretty good starting this up, we created a lot of noise, we had terrific collaborators. … We’ve got to get out of the business of running this thing.”
Kay Armatage (programmer, 1983-2004): It was a smaller festival. Everything about it was different. There was a small staff in one office. Now it’s got its own big building, floors of full-time staff… the differences were enormous in every possible way. … It was a time when the festival was programmed, basically, by about five people. Now, you look at the list of programmers and there are 20 people doing this and that, but it was basically five people for a good decade, maybe close to two decades.
Helga Stephenson (festival director, 1987-1993): It was a generational thing: the boomers went to it. They did not sell out in the early years, but by the third year they started selling out. Which is incredibly fast when you’re beginning a new organization.
We all wanted to see the French films, and we wanted to see the Italian films, and so the festival was literally our only way to see those films. As a generation, we were interested.
Piers Handling: At the beginning we were really focused on putting the festival together—the ten days. It was a lot of work, it was a very small staff, we didn’t have a lot of resources, so all our energies went into that.
Helga Stephenson: We made a very conscious decision, Piers and I, to woo the directors—to go for the talent. We knew that once we got them here, they were always completely overwhelmed by the response of the audience here.
Chaz Ebert: [Roger and Gene Siskel] invited Martin Scorsese to get an award at the festival. That was very early on. If you’ve seen the movie Life Itself, you know that even we didn’t know how crucial that was at that time in his life. He was going through a period where he practically died: where one of his marriages was breaking up; where he was questioning his level of creativity and his drive and motivation; where he was doing drugs… we didn’t know how crucial that invitation to him was.
Roger and Marty, they both started out the same year: Roger started out as a film critic in 1967, and Marty’s first movie, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, was 1967. They sort of grew up in the business together, so to have that invitation from Roger and Gene at that time was so crucial. And to have it in Toronto was important because it’s a festival that was very welcoming, because it was trying to grow and trying to attract big filmmakers.
Helga Stephenson: There was a fierce competition with the Montreal festival, but we allied ourselves with the talent. We were the natural marketing arm for films in North America. We also told the international filmmakers that we were the gateway to the North American market—which we were, and which Montreal could never be.
Kay Armatage: Each of the programmers had virtual autonomy: you selected the film, nobody questioned you about it. Nobody said, “Oh no, don’t show that,” or, “Could you should this one instead?” No, we had virtual autonomy. And as a result, I could choose independent films, and in the ’80s, American independent cinema was very different from what it became after Reservoir Dogs. You could show an avant-garde film—a film by Beth B. and Scott B., a low-budget, American independent cinema—and it would have an audience in Toronto.
Helga Stephenson: The way it’s programmed is very unique in the world of festivals, in the sense that the programmers have complete autonomy: the notes are signed by the programmers, they wear their decisions. What you have is something for everybody, for every possible taste in film.
Kay Armatage: The programmers signed their own program notes, they wrote original notes, and in the case of world premieres, those program notes would be the first real writing on the films, and they would set the tone for the critical and political reception. We were encouraged to write in our own personal style. At a certain point, the program book was taken over, and many notes in the book are simply generic—they’re culled from press releases or whatever.
But in that period, the notes were very personal. The programmers developed followings amongst the audiences. There were festivals within festivals and audiences within audiences, and there were dedicated followers of David Overby’s.
Helga Stephenson: He was a wild, brilliant, and very tough film critic, but he consistently found incredible films. He and, I think, one other programmer in the world were literally responsible for bringing Asian filmmakers to the west. Johnny Woo: David had seen his films and thought they were incredible. He brought them back, and some of the critics who came from all over the continent would walk into my office and say, “Thank you very much for that program, it’s restored my faith in cinema.”
Kay Armatage: David was a colossal figure. He was known and loved everywhere. He was a very, very flamboyant character. He drank an enormous amount, he knew an enormous amount, he knew everybody in the world.
Helga Stephenson: He found Paul Verhoeven. Paul Verhoeven got a critics’ prize for one of his films at one of the early festivals called The 4th Man, a Dutch film, and went on to become Paul Verhoeven.
Kay Armatage: People like Hou Hsiao-hsien, who came to the festival— such a wonderful man, such an exquisite filmmaker, and such a gentleman in all of his bearing to audiences and press and everyone—he adored David and David adored him. They couldn’t have been more opposite: David tromping around in cowboy boots and t-shirts and jeans all the time, and Mr. Hou in a suit and tie and impeccable at all times, but they adored each other.
Helga Stephenson: It was the beginning of the Coens. The golden period [of ‘70s Hollywood] had kind of passed by, but it had left in its wake a whole bunch of new filmmakers who were making different kinds of films.
Kay Armatage: The thing that I think was a real turning point for the festival was the time Wayne Clarkson was the director. He went to L.A. to visit the studios, looking for galas and big films to show, and he couldn’t get a bite. Nobody had heard of Toronto, they thought Toronto was probably covered in snow in September, and they didn’t have a clue. Nobody gave him a film, until they came across one film that had this large ensemble cast of mostly unknown actors, and they really didn’t know how to market it. They said, “Okay, we’ll bring the whole cast to Toronto.” And of course, it was The Big Chill, and the audience response was just a total love-in.
George Anthony: They had the limos lined up on Cumberland. Either Glenn Close or Kevin Kline had been shopping, and they said, “Aren’t we going to the University Theatre?” They said, “Yes.” They pointed across the street to the back of the theatre and said, “It’s right there, we can walk.” They said, “Well, we have all the limos ready,” and they said, “No, no…” So they all just trooped down Bellair and around the corner on Bloor and arrived en masse as a strolling group. It was very evocative of the spirit of the festival, which was: yeah, glam and all that, but let’s not take it too seriously.
I think in some ways that was a big sigh of relief: Okay, we’ve got all these stars, they’re all here, nobody forced them at gunpoint; the studio is here because it wants to be here; Larry Kasdan is here because he wants to be here. Once they came, and once they encountered these audiences, they were all thrilled that they came.
Piers Handling: It was really when I took over as the Artistic Director and Helga was the Executive Director that we began to broaden our wings. We did a lot more international travelling, and we were just being offered so much programming we couldn’t contain in the festival.
Andrea Picard (Wavelengths programmer, 2006-present): My predecessor, Susan Oxtoby, who was the director of Cinematheque Ontario for a long time, was the founder of Wavelengths. She was programming a lot of the experimental films at Cinematheque. There’s always been a really lovely symbiosis between the year-round programming of experimental work at Cinematheque and Wavelengths proper, which was founded 15 years ago.
Wavelengths has a very distinct identity within TIFF, and it’s something we’ve worked very hard on. We’ve grown the audience: the audience is very loyal. Wavelengths was named after Michael Snow’s Wavelength, and it was definitely set up in his honour. It incorporates the ethos of a filmmaker who has shuttled between the art world and the film world. Michael has really astonishing museum works and gallery works, and he’s a photographer and a musician, and I think that Wavelengths carries that ethos.
Elizabeth Muskala (director of TIFF Kids, 2008-present): My former mentor, Jane Schoettle, who’s an international programmer for TIFF, she actually started “Sprockets: Toronto International Film Festival for Children.” She was the driving force behind introducing the Sprockets Family Zone when it became part of TIFF in 2006, and my colleague and I took it on in 2008 and worked to put our own mark on the program. …
As the organization has grown and the festival has grown, a lot of our festival-goers have grown up, they now have families—they want to share their love of film with young people. I think what is really amazing and special for young people is, when you’re a kid, or even a young person, films have a lasting impact. As you are watching a film, you’re digesting what you’re seeing on the screen, and it creates an impact unlike perhaps when you’re an adult. When you think of films that have really had a huge impact on you, a number of them have been films that you saw when you were growing up—whether it’s Bambi or something as populist as Harry Potter.
Noah Cowan (Lightbox artistic director, 2008-2014; festival co-director, 2004-2008; programmer, 1988-1997): Piers was concerned in the late ’80s about the composition of the attendance of the Film Festival, and the increasing aging-out of the art film aficionado world. Even then, it was starting to become an issue—of course, the problem has become acute now.
One of the strategies that he had was to find programming that was specifically geared to a younger generation. The idea that really stuck was to look into some of the genres that wouldn’t otherwise appear in a traditional film festival context. That went from horror films to punk-rock documentaries and to what at that time was a major genre, the music film.
In the first year, essentially he tossed it out as a committee proposition. The senior programmers of the institution really took the lead on Midnight Madness—these legendary figures like Kay Armatage and David Overby and Dimitri Eipides really contributed films that they thought spoke to the ethos Piers was talking about. But there was an unusual twist: the half-a-dozen-or-so people under 25 in the office got the chance to vet the films, watch them, and assist with their inclusion in the festival.
Colin Geddes (programmer, 1997-present): It’s actually a really quiet and respectful audience of cinephiles. But before the film starts, there’s just a crazy energy and atmosphere. A lot of that came from the original days when the Midnight Madness series started at the Bloor, because the Bloor was a little more run-down and rock-and-roll and punk. Back then I think there was more of a drunken, rowdy spirit.
Noah Cowan: The first batch of films—I think there were only five or six films in the program the first year—the major films involved were The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years and Hellbound: Hellraiser II. It was kind of a fun, weird batch of movies. I would call it a little bit chaotic at the time, and something that sat very strangely with some of the other stuff that was being presented.
The success of that really led to us wanted to create a more organized and fulsome program. I’d taken the lead with the younger generation in the office, and Piers asked me to just coordinate it myself. That being said, I relied very heavily on the programmers for years to come in terms of securing movies, and one of the big turning point films that really came because of a relationship with David Overby was Man Bites Dog—sort of the first great art film that decided to join us.
Colin Geddes: Noah reached out to me in ’97 asking me to be co-programmer. My journey to that was really just being an avid Midnight Madness and TIFF fan—I’d always track Noah down in the summer and ask him about tips for Midnight Madness, and what stuff that he had.
I think he noticed there was something different about me one year when Dario Argento was at the Bloor presenting one of his films. Afterwards, when Dario was trying to leave, there was a bit of a mini mob scene, and apparently Noah recounts that I dove in and helped get Dario out of there. So Noah’s like, “There’s something different about this kid.”
Noah Cowan: It was a different age. The reinvention of the midnight movie hadn’t happened yet, so we were really on the cutting edge. There was a ’60s, ’70s drive-in and grindhouse culture, and then a ’90s and ’00s new horror culture, and in between there wasn’t much. The grindhouses were all closing down, and horror had become more of a vehicle for comedy than anything. What there was a hunger for in our audience was a lot of the really cool, post-punk cinemas coming out of New York, L.A., London, Paris, and especially Tokyo in the first few years of the program.
Colin Geddes: It took me a while to find my own programming voice and actually have confidence in the films I would select. Noah’s vision for Midnight Madness, I think, might have been a little more transgressive than mine. But at the same time, I felt I was more rooted, not necessarily in what the audience wanted, but in the audience experience. Because I’d been in that audience for many years and I felt I knew what worked at Midnight Madness and what didn’t. …
I’ve gone on record explaining that the films for that section are films that really need to pop within the first 15, 20 minutes. Slow-burn films don’t necessarily work, and you can’t have a film that’s only going to be crazy in the last 15 minutes because it will lose everybody’s attention by that point.
In the past, Midnight used to be seen kind of as a ghetto. Now, that’s a place where films are routinely discovered and introduced into the marketplace. When we had Cabin Fever, no one knew Eli Roth—that film came out of nowhere, and it turned out to be the second biggest acquisition sale of the film festival, and that really turned Midnight Madness around.
Piers Handling: I don’t think we’re chasing after the Oscar stuff—I think it’s more that they’re being offered to us now. Those are just the types of films that go on to Oscar nominations: they tend to be more artistically driven. They’re less the tentpole movies. The franchise stuff, that doesn’t come our way.
Liam Lacey: Companies like Miramax really became interested in winning Oscars, but with smaller, more art-house kind of films. If you go back over the history of the Oscars, they tended to be successful movies—movies that made a lot of money. But then starting with the late ’90s, Miramax and Harvey Weinstein really became adept at campaigning. I think the year Shakespeare in Love toppled Saving Private Ryan was quite critical: there was a shift towards the fall quasi-art-house movie becoming the Oscar candidate.
Piers Handling: I think American Beauty was sort of the tipping point in ’99, because it basically won most of the key Oscars that year and had its world premiere in Toronto. Studios in L.A. were very aware of us in the ’90s and brought their films here, but I think that was the one that pushed us over the edge. The Audience Award-winning film often went on to be nominated for Best Picture and actually win—films like Crash, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave.
Certainly for the foreign film category, there were a lot. I think if you actually look back at the list for the last 25 years, we’ve had every single winner in that category, plus we’ve had three or four of the nominees every single year.
Noah Cowan: Toronto is a very important business festival. Ensuring that there’s a lively business environment occurring is actually part of the magic of the thing. You want to have that exhilaration of a first-time filmmaker understand that he’s now in the big leagues. That happens through a series of commercial transactions as well as critical ones.
Helga Stephenson: There was a cluster of [festivals]: there was Venice, there was us, there was New York. You could assemble your cast for a week, do two continents, cover your markets and get the promotion going.
Kay Armatage: We had the same autonomy, but the program notes were all rewritten, and many of the program notes were not written by the programmers at all—the program book staff would write them. It became much more… corporatized.
Liam Lacey: We all became aware that the Hollywood studios had started piggybacking junkets off TIFF. The most Hollywood-ish films were always the galas, but sometimes there would be films that weren’t even in the festival: they just knew there were so many press up here from the States at that time they would run these junkets.
I wrote a piece at that time, in the late ’90s or 2000, called “Has Hollywood Stolen Our Festival?” I think Piers said, “Well, it’s a legitimate point, but no, we don’t believe that…” At the time, there was sort of a shift where the festival said, “Well, it’s up to the Europeans. We keep telling them, bring more of your stars, bring more of your talents.’”
Chaz Ebert: Roger knew that he could see films that he could write about for the rest of the year. He felt that if you missed something like Toronto, you would miss the beginning of learning which films were going to be on the slate for the rest of the year.
Liam Lacey: There was more of a sense that this is where you would see the film that was going to be the eventual Oscar winner. I think TIFF was happy to have that status because it gave them more media coverage in the States and gave them a certain kind of status. But I think there was also a sense that sometimes that wasn’t really what the festival should be about, particularly when [studios] would run junkets for movies that weren’t even at the festival.
Piers Handling: You never really felt the pressure to go out and find Oscar-winning films; it was always about just finding the best films you could find. In the back of your mind when you were watching these kinds of things, you’d say, “Wow, that’s an amazing performance, I can’t imagine the Academy ignoring this.” I remember seeing Training Day and Denzel’s performance, or I remember seeing Leaving Las Vegas and Elisabeth Shue and Nic Cage’s performances—they were very strong, cinematic performances.
Colin Geddes: If there’s a studio film or a big film of note, it’s a perfect tentpole to get attention for the underdogs. A good example is Dredd: it played through the roof, and as a result got attention for every other independent film that was also playing [at Midnight Madness] within the next nine days.
Liam Lacey: I think it’s tricky, but you talk to people like Cameron [Bailey, festival co-director], they’ll say, “We never know, we don’t book a film on the premise that it’s going to win an Oscar.” I think that’s probably true. I think it helps TIFF in terms of American media coverage and profile, and probably Toronto’s. Those kinds of films… I don’t know how to describe them exactly, but that sort of $30-60 million art-house film with a message that Miramax will pick up… there’s something a little bit middlebrow-ish about it. But I sort of think that’s like the bake sale approach: we sell the cakes because they’re raising money for a better cause, which is all the international art films.
You could spend a lot of your time just watching Discovery or Contemporary World Cinema, which is what the heart of the festival is about in terms of seeing interesting stuff. As a media person covering it, it was always a challenge, because that’s the stuff you sort of wish people could look toward, but like every other journalist, I was too involved in covering the more popular stuff.
Adam Nayman (film critic): It’s a mistake to think that saying “Not all the films at TIFF are good” is a bad thing. It’s a good thing. What’s the line in The Incredibles? “If everyone is super, nobody is.” The idea that there are 300 great films at this festival—no one believes that. No one there believes that. But, y’know, if you accept that and you’re honest about it, the really good ones stand out. And to me, the least interesting thing in the world is that people have to agree on what those good ones are.
Bill Marshall: One I get a huge kick out of is Chariots of Fire, because it was the first time anybody had seen it with the soundtrack. When the studio bought it, Vangelis hadn’t done the soundtrack, and he wouldn’t fly, so the studio thought it was going to be a dog. We had the whole cast here, and it was just electric.
It’s basically a boring movie without the soundtrack. I mean, who cares about a guy running slowly on the beach who won’t run on Sunday? Okay, that’s good—is that a movie? I don’t think so. But that soundtrack…
George Anthony: I’ll always associate In Praise of Older Women with the festival. Year three, I think we had a subway strike and it was raining, maybe a thousand duplicate tickets were out there, I have no idea why. There were people in the street, and they were angry: they had tickets and they couldn’t get in, and the Elgin Theatre was jammed, and the cops came, as they had to. I remember one officer asking what was going on here, what are you showing here? We said, “Well, it’s a new Canadian film called In Praise of Older Women,” and he said, “Well, all these people aren’t behaving this way to get into a Canadian film, are they?”
There was a jury who were going to be voting on the best Canadian film in the festival. When they arrived at the theatre, they couldn’t get in. I was conscripted to walk them down to Sam the Chinese Food Man—Sam the Record Man at that time also had a Chinese food restaurant upstairs. So I took them to Sam the Chinese Food Man and made sure they had dinner, and then I walked them to the New Yorker, which is now the Panasonic. We took them there, and they bicycled the print: after they showed a reel at the Elgin, they bicycled it down to the New Yorker and screened it that way.
Bill Marshall: The province said, “We haven’t got any money, but we’ll let you use Ontario Place.” So we had a great party space, but we also used the Imax theatre, which is a bugger to sit in. In the end they said, “Why are we sitting here?” I said, “Well, I’ll show you,” and I showed them North of Superior, which I think was the first time the trade press took IMAX seriously.
Helga Stephenson: Diva had opened in Europe and failed. Our programmer David Overby fought for it, got it here, it became an instant success, it was picked up for distribution within 24 hours, and went on to become one of the great art house successes of all time. That’s when the European and international markets woke up and said, “Oh! We can do some business there.”
Piers Handling: There’s risk-taking that festivals can indulge in. People are somewhat timid or unsure about how a film is going to be received, and we can give it a platform. School of Rock was one of those stories, believe it or not; so were Leaving Las Vegas and Sexy Beast and American Beauty. Leaving Las Vegas for sure, because it was passed over by Cannes, Venice and Berlin, and ended up in our lap.
Kay Armatage: Michael Moore had shown Roger & Me at Telluride, and he knew the kind of response that it got at Telluride. When he came to Toronto, the first thing he asked me was, “How many seats in the cinema?” and, “How is the audience prize figured out?” If you were showing at a 300-seat theatre, where he was, could you have the same chance? And of course it could, and he walked away with the audience award.
Noah Cowan: Tetsuo, the Iron Man is still the only really, truly great cyberpunk movie as far as I’m concerned.
Chaz Ebert: Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter—that one made a big impression on me, and made me such an Atom Egoyan admirer. I think that that’s the film that also made me really try to analyze what distinguished Canadian filmmakers from other filmmakers. There’s sort of an… eccentricity to Canadian filmmakers that I just like, and that Roger liked. I don’t even know how to describe it or put my finger on it. I don’t know if there’s something in the water…
Andrea Picard: Nathaniel Dorsky’s Song and Solitude, which we showed in 2006 – that was my first year programming Wavelengths. I had obviously previewed it before, but then I watched it with the audience and though this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and it actually gave me goosebumps to think that I could be so moved in a cinema collectively with 200 people to watch an abstract work.
Piers Handling: Slumdog Millionaire was one of those great stories. It didn’t look like it was going to get a theatrical release, and we came along and kind of saved it. It looked as if it was going to go straight to video because the company Danny [Boyle] was with had just collapsed.
Noah Cowan: The experiment that sort of half-worked was Dazed and Confused. It actually was released as a fairly conventional film, and I think maybe Richard Linklater liked the idea of it being released that way. Subsequently it became known as a cult film that actually would play very well in Midnight Madness, but the night itself was a little awkward, because I’m not quite sure he knew what to do with these fans. He had a great time, he’s a really easygoing guy, but I’m not sure that was necessarily his image of his film.
Colin Geddes: I’m always proud of the films that kinda went into a black hole of distribution and mismanagement. One is a film by a director named Scott Reynolds called Heaven. It was a film about a transvestite clairvoyant psychic stripper. It was actually a film I watched in the screening room with Piers Handling and I wasn’t sure it would play midnight or not because of my own criteria, but Piers turned to me and was like: “That’s black tie midnight. That’s elegant midnight.”
Elizabeth Muskala: Seeing Lassie strut down a red carpet was quite remarkable. The response from the audience outside while they were waiting to get into the screening was incredible. I mean, Lassie might as well have been the Hollywood ‘It’ star of today. … Lassie was not a prima donna, and it all worked out.
Liam Lacey: The Master: just walking into that screening and not knowing what you were going to see, and then just kind of going out on a high. I knew there was some ambivalence from other critics, but I just thought: I’m so pleased to have seen one of the first screenings of this really interesting film. Just feeling happy that you’re there for that, and you get to experience something you consider major.
Adam Nayman: I’ve never met Jason Reitman. I think he’s a really bad filmmaker. I really do. And I think he’s not the only bad filmmaker. He may not be the worst filmmaker—there may be somehow filmmakers worse than him. He’s pretty bad.
Colin Geddes: If you want to know what the most infamous screening was, that was definitely Borat. I mean, there was just so much buzz around the film. The entrance was one of the most spectacular entrances we’d ever had, with Borat arriving on the red carpet in a cart with a donkey, and the cart was being pulled by his sisters. Paparazzi, fans screaming, people going crazy—he goes onstage, kisses me on both cheeks, and then cups my junk onstage. My ex-girlfriend was in the audience and she was like, “Oh, nice to know that Borat, your doctor and I all have something in common.”
Everybody was going crazy. There were celebrities in the audience—like, Michael Moore was there—and then suddenly the projector breaks 20 minutes into the film. In the end, we weren’t able to fix the problem, but meanwhile, Michael Moore jumps onstage with the director and does an impromptu Q&A. And then, Sacha Baron Cohen and I jump onstage at the end and save the day, and we do our Q&A, which was a hilarious “interview” of Borat onstage. The film subsequently played the following night, but everyone just had such a blast. It was one of those things where no one needed to see the film because the night was already so memorable.
Piers Handling: What was holding us back was not having a physical space for the year-round activities. All those year-round activities were dispersed in buildings and cinemas that we didn’t own: the Cinematheque was at the AGO, and the children’s festival was up at the Cineplex at Yonge and Eglinton, and the archive and library was at the second floor of a high-rise building. At that point in time, we realized that to really make the next step, and turn the year-round activities into something as successful as the festival, we needed a building.
Helga Stephenson: We would try to always have an element of Cinematheque programming in it, but then we basically took over the Ontario Film Institute and began to actually do real Cinematheque programming under [programmer] James Quandt.
We wanted to institutionalize film in the cultural life of the city. We wanted to feed our audiences on a more consistent basis than 10 days. We wanted to have staff that understood film and could work year-round promoting it and create the team that could carry the organization forward. We realized that the moving image was going to be the language of the young, and it would be like a kid wanting to paint but no AGO—that it was extremely important for people to have access to the great filmmakers of the world.
Adam Nayman: The Lightbox houses Cinematheque, and by dint of housing Cinematheque, they have greatness, or a lot of very goodness, within them.
Piers Handling: Helga and I had done some sniffing around—we’d had this thought of a building, this was about 10 years before, it was in the early ’90s. We were in touch with an architect at that point in time, and 10 years later that architect happened to be involved with a project Ivan was involved with on this piece of land. That project fell through, but he made the Reitmans aware the festival was doing a building, and made us aware the Reitmans had a piece of land. …
If a real estate company is looking for extra aerial rights, extra benefits, if they partner with a cultural institution or not-for-profit, they’ll get extra benefits. They were looking around to do that, and they actually had a theatre—not a cinema, a theatre—embedded in their conceptual design. When we connected, because of Ivan’s connection to film, they turned it into a “give back to the city” with the connection to TIFF and the film festival.
Elizabeth Muskala: As part of what was previously “Sprockets: Toronto International Film Festival for Children,” we’ve expanded a lot of the same types of programs into a year-round environment. We not only have TIFF Kids, which happens in April and is our children’s festival, but we’ve also introduced the TIFF Next Wave Festival, which is for our young teenage audience. We’ve also got camps and we’ve got an ongoing school program.
Noah Cowan: “The Essential 100” was how we started things. We wanted to put a stake in the ground that we were looking at a really broad base of cinema.
Piers Handling: Tim Burton was such a visual artist—drew a lot, sketched a lot—you knew there were going to be things to hang on the wall as opposed to just costumes. Just the visual part of his imagination, the sketches, are so fascinating, you kind of knew there would be a real connection between the audience and that material. It wasn’t just a memorabilia show around objects and costumes and things from the films—it was much more an entrée into the mind of the artist himself.
Noah Cowan: We tried to explore some of the more accessible names—not just Tim Burton, but James Bond and Fellini and Kubrick and what have you. That was always a focus for what we were doing. While I would love to see a collection of Manoel de Oliveira’s photographs, I’m not sure there are that many Torontonians who would come out for it, and that beautiful gallery space just demands to be filled.
The attendance on a couple was a little lower than we’d hoped. The Fellini show wasn’t a blockbuster even though it’s a great show about the history of the paparazzi, but we loved doing the show. The costs were high but nothing that really crippled the organization, and we knew there was going to be a five-year period of establishing ourselves.
Adam Vaughan (Toronto City Councilor for Ward 20, 2006-2014; MP for Trinity-Spadina, 2014-present): It’s been fantastic for the local businesses—it’s kept people on the streets, walking around the community seven days a week, mostly at night, which gives it a real vitality. But it’s also helped transform the entertainment district from being just a place for big-box nightclubs into a place of a whole array of culture.
Adam Nayman: When you have a building with five screens that operates as it does—it’s a cliché, but in the same way as the festival, there’s a place for most things. That said, other than the isolated gestures of certain filmmakers and cinephiles who host screenings, and other than what I think Colin [Geddes] and Kat [Gligorijevic] have managed to do at the Royal, which is now working, the rep culture in this city took a big hit. The big hit is not TIFF’s fault: it’s not like they were sitting around being like, “We’re going to kill off all the cinemas.” Those things were dying off anyway.
One could argue that it was a bad business plan for TIFF to build a movie theatre. Forget what else it is. Forget that it’s basically Spaceball One—“It’s a floorwax, it’s a dessert topping, it’s a corporate edifice, there’s a zoo…” Leaving aside that, they built a movie theatre at a time when theatrical exhibition is threatened from above and threatened from below and threatened from within. So you want to root for a theatre. Obviously its success, and some of the films it has access to, and some of the distributors who went there other than anywhere else, I think it contributes to the rep culture in the city.
Piers Handling: I think there’s more pressure on festivals. I think festivals have become more and more important to more and more filmmakers and film companies. I think as the market has constricted over the last 15 years, especially in terms of independent and foreign-language films, it’s more important to differentiate yourself from the rest. One of the ways you can really differentiate yourself is to go to one of the major festivals, be found there, be acknowledged there. We’re a major gatekeeper—once you’re in those festivals, there’s going to be a lot of press attention, media attention, public attention, industry attention that’s going to elevate your film and separate it from the rest.
I don’t think festivals were as important to the release strategy, distribution strategy, acquisition strategy of films 20 years ago as they are now. Now, I would say in some cases they’re absolutely central: without a festival screening, you’re probably dead in the water.
Liam Lacey: Every time there have been controversies within it—there was an event a couple of years ago with Andrea Picard, and whether she was leaving Wavelengths, and I think some tension, and somehow at the end of it she ends up being back in Wavelengths and we don’t really know the inside story; and there was something around Noah Cowan at one point when he was sort-of moved sideways, then he eventually left the festival; Kay Armatage, who was a U of T professor and at one point was a programmer, and then was sort-of ousted—none of these ever blew up in their faces. It was always sort-of calmly handled. There was always an old rule in theatre: whenever there are bad stories about administration, it reflects at the box office.
Andrea Picard: I think that the identity with Wavelengths was always tied to the Cinematheque, particularly because Susan [Oxtoby] was the founder, and I think because we always really loved the venue of Jackman Hall for the presentation of experimental cinema. I mean, the Lightbox has beautiful, beautiful cinemas, but I think the identity of Wavelengths—at least the short programs—was always tied to Jackman Hall and the Cinematheque.
When I left the organization, I left as a full-time capacity. I think there was some confusion there, but I wasn’t leaving the festival proper. I was coming back as an independent curator. But I think that Wavelengths hasn’t changed in any way, and I think that the Free Screen, which takes places at regular intervals as part of the Cinematheque programming, is very integral.
Liam Lacey: TIFF has been pretty Teflon: it has not come up with any major controversies. To some degree, the one about Tel Aviv [2009’s “City-to-City: Tel Aviv” program, which showcased films from the Israeli city], but it kind of came and went.
Piers Handling: I think we were somewhat prepared for the controversy around Tel Aviv because Israel comes with a lot of controversy. But I think it’s terrible to start shying away from those types of things and let public opinion—and uninformed opinion, in some cases—affect your decisions. If you’ve got a really strong argument in terms of the quality of films being put on screen, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about playing politics, it’s about supporting artistic merit.
Liam Lacey: Mostly they don’t respond that much, which seems to be smart. They don’t get into these slanging matches with their critics. I’m not sure, maybe it’s just the general mildness of Piers as a person, but they tend to try to wheather these things out rather than try to get into them, and I think that’s always been to their benefit.
Piers Handling: The media are looking for stuff to write about and something like Tel Aviv can obviously be battered around.
Liam Lacey: I didn’t really understand why Cameron felt the need to announce the drawing-a-line-in-the-sand thing [about films premiering early at the Telluride Film Festival]. I know because of the internet, and because reviews spring out so fast now, if you show something at Telluride, the reviews are out in the trades—the Hollywood Reporter and Variety—and they’re out in the Twitterverse very quickly. In some way, I guess Toronto might think that stole their thunder. But I never really bought it, because it’s not a mass audience, and when you hit Toronto, you’re hitting, in some sense, the big time: you’ve got all the press here.
Adam Nayman: Leaving aside the fact that it’s actually very important and useful and worth the time and money that festivals spend to operate to have a premiere and be the first place to show a film… people going to movies do not, I believe, care. It does heighten the level of excitement: if someone comes out and says, “You’re the first paying audience to see this movie,” it’s exciting. But it’s not like if you’re sitting in the audience to see Labour Day and someone say, “Guys, I have bad news, it showed at Telluride last night,” people aren’t going to be like, “Aaargh… I’m leaving…” It’s a night out at the movies.
Liam Lacey: They have never really had any revolutions in the ranks, and mostly they’ve always tended to hire people they know. Even Noah Cowan started working at the box office. They work from within. It’s not a very academic institution: you have people like James Quandt, who’s kind of the resident genius at Cinematheque, [but] usually they’re not above a B.A., the programmers. Piers is an exception: he’s an academic, he taught at Queen’s.
They’re sort-of film enthusiasts who have been brought in and schooled within the culture of TIFF. I don’t know that culture because I don’t go inside the building that much except to see screenings, but they tend to have… people talk about, they have meetings and they applaud at the end of them and stuff, and I’m thinking, what kind of meetings are those? … There’s a culture… let’s say a culture. They create this atmosphere.
Colin Geddes: I went from being an audience member to getting accreditation because I did a fanzine, so then I went on the inside as a journalist, and then I became a programmer. In many ways, TIFF was my film school. I never went to film school, but TIFF introduced me to Hong Kong film. I would know nothing about Hong Kong film if I didn’t go into that screening of A Chinese Ghost Story II.
Liam Lacey: My take on it is: it’s a bit of a genius-of-the-system thing. I think that the festival, with the exception of the year Leonard Schein [was appointed festival director], has always hired from within, and has always promoted from within. It has been very insular in that sense. They’ve brought in people that they knew from the community.
There’s been a fairly tight relationship with the press in the sense that Brian Johnson was at one point a driver for the festival, Geoff Pevere programmed for the festival, Cameron programmed for the festival—he invented “Planet Africa” before he went to writing for Now as a critic, and then he came back to the festival. Jay Scott, who was our critic during its major period—’79 to the early ’90s—was quite tight with people at the festival. There was very much a social cohesion there.
Chaz Ebert: Over the years, Roger said how impressed he was with the Toronto filmgoers. That’s why Roger would even stand in line when he could get in anywhere without standing in line. He would stand in line because he loved talking to people when he was in line to find out which movies they were going to.
Roger would write articles about it. He said, inevitably somebody would have a backpack, because they were going to go to movies all day, and he would say: “What foods do you use to fuel yourself in order to be able to go to movies all day?” … People would tell him what kind of shoes they wore, all kinds of things.
Kay Armatage: There was a great sense of continuity and knowledge on the part of the audience. And of course, that’s how the festival became as important as it is: because buyers and press counted on that very large, loyal, and knowledgeable audience that Toronto provided. When they were seeing a first film by a first filmmaker for the first time, the audience response was absolutely crucial to their understanding of how that film would play.
Adam Nayman: TIFF does pretty well to keep and grow its audience. On that score, they know exactly what they’re doing. People don’t really complain about this festival a lot. The people who complain about it are the people who are inside the festival culture and journalism. If you go to your parents’ barbeque in June or July and ask your parents if they go to TIFF, they say, “Oh, we go to TIFF every year, we love it. We got our tickets, we saw Bill Murray, we saw five movies, I saw something with my daughter.” And I don’t say that with any condescension.
Helga Stephenson: It hit Toronto at a time when there was an unbelievable amount of immigration, and the festival became one of the only organized arts and cultural organizations that actually spoke to the contemporary diversity of Toronto.
Noah Cowan: The festival has this important balance between being a cultural magnate and being a source of civic pride. I think that different elements of the city respond to both of those powerful strengths. So yeah, the city bends over backwards to help the festival be as good as it can because it knows that citizens of Toronto think the festival is one of the greatest things invented in the country.
Adam Vaughan: Culture in the city is being priced out of some of the neighbourhoods that it actually helped create. If TIFF moves into a community like this and starts to deliver a real vitality to the neighbourhoods, one of the things that happens is the land values go up because people want to be close to it. As soon as that happens, your property tax goes up. If we don’t look at cultural activity—which operates with a great deal of public support to begin with—as something that we need to continually provide with different levels of support to because of the transformations they bring to communities, artists and cultural organizations become the victims of their own success.
Chaz Ebert: It’s well run because it has government money, and a lot of festivals don’t have that. They’re able to do a lot of things that other festivals don’t have the money to do.
Adam Vaughan: Most of the grumblings [about Festival Street, in which several blocks on King Street were closed for pedestrian traffic on peak days during the 2014 festival] were people who were trying to get through the neighbourhood, not people who lived in the neighbourhood. Though I appreciate that some folks use streets as thoroughfares, these particular neighbourhoods—John Street, King Street—they’re destinations. There was ample warning, and also, [we were] taking a look at the opportunity to experiment with public transit on King Street. We thought this was a great chance to support TIFF, to test whether or not a transit corridor would work in the neighbourhood, and to see how restaurants would respond to the extra patio space. It wasn’t just a transportation decision—there were a whole lot of other ideas being tested at the same time, and we wanted to see how we could use the streets differently.
We build cities for people, and when people use the cities, they’re great places to live. Sometimes that means people get accommodated instead of cars.
Henk Van der Kolk: I don’t know whether we worried much about its “identity” … What we wanted was a better environment to make and finance films in.
Chaz Ebert: Even TIFF itself has given Roger credit for being the first person in the world to announce the festival the most important festival in North America, and the second most important in the world after the Cannes Film Festival. I remember the year he made that announcement, oh my god, it was kind of controversial, because people weren’t thinking of it that way. Now, of course, everybody knows how important TIFF is, but at the time he made that announcement, people were like, “What? What about Berlin? What about the New York Film Festival? What about Venice?” Roger said, “This is my pronouncement, and I stand by it.”
Piers Handling: You’re always trying to make sure the original reason you started the festival is still there. You’re trying to adapt to the times, but at the same time you try to remain true to the core of your vision, and that’s basically to show the best cinema that’s out there, as opposed to the cinema that’s going to be the most commercially successful. It’s balancing commercial interests versus artistic, and that’s probably the history of cinema going right back to the very beginning.
George Anthony: It’s the only film festival in the world that’s actually designed for moviegoers. Cannes is like a big industry convention and it’s full of headlines and glamour and glitz and all that stuff, but nobody in Cannes can go to the movies. It’s entirely closed—it’s just industry. If you bring your wife or husband, and they don’t have an industry pass, then there’s a lottery where some people who are connected to some people might get a ticket to a movie.
Adam Vaughan: This is the event where, if you’re Iranian, and you only get to see films on computers or on DVDs that are sent from home, and you don’t get to see them on the big screen—and you certainly don’t get to see the actors and the writers and the directors—you could do nothing but Iranian films. Or pick a country, pick a continent: it gives you the opportunity to see the finest in films from the place that you call home.
Andrea Picard: I think it’s an exciting aspect of Wavelengths where we have someone like Ken Jacobs—who’s shown a lot—and Nathaniel Dorsky, and then we have a lot of students. I think it’s very exciting for them to show together, because then you have a fresh voice and generation with the masters, all in one space.
Colin Geddes: What’s really remarkable about the experience of being a programmer is being able to transform an artist, an actor, someone’s life through the act of sharing [a film] on a bigger scale. Prachya Pinkaew, the director of Ong-Bak, arrived late, Air Canada had lost his luggage, we had to take him across the street on Yonge Street to get t-shirts from a dollar store… and then two hours later, the audience is going bonkers, and pretty much ready to carry the director out of the cinema on their shoulders.
And after the screening, as I’m celebrating with the director at a Chinese restaurant on Spadina, we phoned Tony Jaa. And the phone goes around the table, and by the time the phone gets to me, what I get on the other end of the line is, ‘Hello, my name is Tony Jaa, I am crying because I am so happy.’ And if you think about it, could you or anyone have named an actor or director from Thailand? But overnight, that film, that screening, gave Thailand its first internationally recognizable superstar.
Liam Lacey: To me, there’s never been that strong a personality. When you talk about Cannes, it’s Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob. In Sundance, at certain times, there have been certain names you associate with the festival and the style. That’s not really the Toronto way of doing things. And it seems to me actually a strength—that there’s a collection of people who are like-minded.
Noah Cowan: I think the festival at its best often reflects Toronto itself. Toronto itself has this sometimes-perplexing need to self-define, and self-define as something less than it is. And when Toronto resists that, and just goes for it, and becomes this city of the boundless energy and enthusiasm and cultural curiosity that it is, and doesn’t worry about that too much, it tends to succeed.
There are a lot of moments where it’s like, “Okay, are we championing Canadian films?” “Is it a conduit for European and Asian films to get into North America?” “Is it an Oscar festival?” All of these questions that could have strongly defined what the festival is have been resisted. And to the credit of Piers Handling in particular, to be the great cultural leader in the city that it is, it can’t be defined as one thing.
With files from Jamie Bradburn.