In this unprecedented time of pandemic, TIFF had a chance to do something special in 2020. From a place of love, we dissect the shortcomings of this year’s digital festival. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
The borders are closed. The cinemas are houses of plague. The Oscars have been delayed. And studio and indie films alike are holding back their films from audiences in favour of a festival play when things are back to ‘normal’. Given festivals are so much about the communal experience of in-cinema gatherings and the ability to interact with the talent in front of and behind the lens, what’s a film festival to do in these times?
Cannes was effectively cancelled, running only a virtual market event, but not without first putting their label on the films they had already planned to select. Telluride cancelled. Venice, which kicks off the fall festival season for Oscar hopefuls, has decided to go on as if nothing has changed except mask wearing, in a bid to become the superspreader event of the season, outstripping possibly even the nolanvirus given the number of internationals gathering in one place. And TIFF has opted for a Frankenstein version of the festival: half in-person, half online, with a pared down selection, pre-recorded Q&As, and the occasional Zoom talk with just a few celebrities.
Although TIFF began life as the Festival of Festivals, a showcase of the best international cinema for Toronto locals, it has been increasingly rebranding as the launchpad for the Oscars. Over the last decade, ticket price increases have far outpaced inflation, pricing out most locals that couldn’t already afford to be major TIFF donors. At the same time, the festival has been drawing in more and more international press and punters, especially from the US, who arrive not to sample world cinema so much as to preview the Oscar films. Given Canada has closed its borders, King St. won’t be filled with celebrities and fans, alike, and there are precious few films hitting the festival as Oscar hopefuls.
The unprecedented pandemic has been an opportunity for festivals to rethink how they do business. Canada’s smaller film festivals led the way earlier this year. HotDocs became a month-long event available to all Ontarians, during which all films were available online for the duration, allowing the time for films to build word of mouth. That made it accessible to those outside of Toronto, and unexpectedly, made it possible to watch more films than in most years, without the struggle of schedule conflicts or long queues. In an effort to give a real-time experience, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival dropped various titles throughout its festival, each available for just 24 hours, ensuring a certain level of scarcity that forces you to watch. And Montreal’s Fantasia Festival just wrapped a hybrid version of these two models, with some films available throughout the festival, and some only available to watch live.
TIFF’s approach to pandemic programming has thus far been much less creative, and that’s extended to their approach to this year’s festival, too. While the Bell Lightbox was closed, TIFF offered livestreams in which artistic director Cameron Bailey chatted with individual filmmakers on Zoom — like a watered down version of what you might get at a regular screening. I was surprised to discover that it was so poorly attended that our talk with Amma Asante had more views than TIFF’s, despite the fact that we’re a relatively small publication. Whereas Film at Lincoln Centre in New York offered rare screenings of hard-to-find films in their ‘virtual cinema’ over the summer, TIFF offered members 99c rentals of films you could already stream for free on Crave.
Instead of finding imaginative ways to continue to “transform the way people see the world through film” in this time of global pandemic, TIFF has doubled down on what it’s always done, which now means offering a watered down version of the festival. Most years, TIFF has programmed upwards of 300 films, including shorts and features, while this year, it limited its selection to just 50 features and just 5 short film programmes (compared to most years which have seen double that). For the first time ever, every film is available digitally, and not just in Ontario, but across Canada. So whether you want to brave the drive-in or lightbox, or prefer to avoid any potential contact with the novel coronavirus, you can still see the films you want to see if you’re a punter in Canada — at least, in theory.
In practice, accessing the festival this year has been even more challenging than past years, in what has proved one (avoidable) PR nightmare after another for the festival — from refusing access to the festival for marginalized critics, to sticking with the (in my opinion, misguided) Ontario recommendations for mask use in cinemas (not mandatory). (Both policies have since been reversed, at least somewhat, though not before TIFF was publicly embarrassed.) For locals who attend the festival to get a glimpse at the best of Canadian cinema, the festival barely delivers. For the first time in memory, there are no features from Quebec — the fest has been trending toward fewer and fewer Quebec films by the year, with just two last year — and only five features that aren’t more co-productions than they are Canadian. That’s not a comment on the lack of available great films but on TIFF’s inability to program them. There is no chance to interact with talent at the festival, even when other festivals, like Fantasia, had arranged for live Zoom Q&As with talent after the film’s screening window; TIFF has instead opted to pre-record Q&As and intros with the filmmakers.
Despite a streamlined selection of films, it’s harder than ever for punters to figure out what to see since the press is under a complete embargo until all films have already started screening. Worse, films are only screening digitally once, and only to the public for a 24-hour window (and press for a 48-hour one), meaning there’s no opportunity for smaller films to build word-of-mouth buzz — and for that to translate into ticket sales. Seeing smaller titles has always been a gamble at TIFF, but at least in past years, great films that were made available early to press were able to get some traction because of that coverage — in time for audiences to actually see the films. On the flip side, fewer Oscar-tipped films could mean more air in the room for press and audiences to focus on smaller international and Canadian titles. Not having to queue for those films or skip meals to squeeze them in might help, too.
At the same time, the films TIFF has been touting as Oscar hopefuls and highlights of the fest, like Ammonite, are barely available to audiences at all. By all accounts, all public tickets to Ammonite were sold out mid-way through the advanced ticketing window for donors, meaning that not even regular TIFF members had a chance to purchase them. As the film is being released by Elevation Pictures in Canada, it is also one of four titles not screening to press in TIFF’s online screening room.
For the first time in almost a decade, TIFF has decided not to compete with Telluride, Venice, and the New York Film Festival for who gets to premiere what title at their festival, which, in the past, has meant not getting titles, such as A Bigger Splash, Carol, and Inherent Vice. Instead, all four festivals are collaborating on a multi-festival same-day premiere of Nomadland. Ironically, though, this is the first year TIFF has rejected Cannes titles without major on-screen talent; they are screening Another Round starring Mads Mikkelson and Ammonite starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, but few others. Films that opted to take the Cannes label back in May but haven’t secured distribution have now been relegated to the ‘TIFF Industry Selects’ section, which is only viewable by press and industry — with many films not available to press at all. Meanwhile, Cannes-branded Canadian films, like Pascal Plante’s excellent Nadia Butterfly, have been excluded from the fest entirely, when in past years, the Cannes label led to a guaranteed TIFF screening (unless you’re Atom Egoyan or Xavier Dolan).
The Industry Selects sections seems like a good deal for TIFF, and a bad deal for audiences. It lets TIFF put their name on the title and still claim importance as a marketplace for sales titles, without actually having to go to the trouble of letting people see the films. In other words, it lets them act more like Cannes, a festival designed exclusively for the industry, when TIFF’s mandate had always been, in the past, to be the ‘people’s festival’. This is especially a shame since many of these films feel like features that would have screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section in other years. For example, new films from Magnus von Horn (Sweat) and Danielle Arbid (Passion Simple) have both been relegated to this section; TIFF previously screened both directors’ first features (The Here After and Parisienne, respectively). Of course, with the festival’s short viewing windows, it almost doesn’t matter whether press covers films that the public can or can’t see since by the time the stories are out, nobody will be able to see the films anyway.
And this brings us to the ill-advised decision this year to limit the number of press allowed to cover the festival. Though TIFF has publicly acknowledged that this was a decision made because distributors were being stingy about how many people should be allowed to see their films, it does make one wonder whether TIFF should program such films at all. If you want the TIFF label, you should pay the TIFF toll: letting press and audiences actually see your films, which is supposed to be the entire point of a festival anyway.
The reality is that when there are limits placed on who gets to see films, the default few who get past the gatekeepers are legacy media — the dailys and the trades — which are, by and large, run by cis straight able-bodied white men. If you write for a smaller publication that specializes in niche markets, or are yourself a marginalized writer, your access is often the first to be cut.
As Angelo Muredda tweeted when he was denied accreditation by TIFF, “TIFF had the option of increasing access and making an effort to enable wider freelancing opportunities for under-represented film writers in These Unprecedented Times. They made a different choice.” It was especially shocking to see TIFF deny accreditation to prominent, influential Canadian critics who were disabled (e.g., Angelo Muredda and Bill Chambers, who has covered the festival for the last 25 years) or women (e.g., Andrea Subissati of Rue Morgue).
Meanwhile, TIFF had the gall to keep virtue signalling with their media inclusion initiative — which only offered access to the festival to people who had never covered it before — while denying accreditation to press who were accredited last year because of that very initiative. Of course, that choice backfired quickly, and suddenly anyone who had reached a high enough level of online complaint were informed that actually they would be accredited. A week later, TIFF had magically discovered they could support even more press and people like our very own Executive Editor Orla Smith were finally let into the game.
But the damage had already been done — both to TIFF’s reputation and to the critics affected by their short-sighted decisions. By and large, the critics denied and then given accreditation were marginalized freelance writers who only get paid to cover the festival if they place stories in major outlets. By the time they found out they would be able to cover the festival, it was too late: the assignments had been made, and if you weren’t already on staff somewhere, your window to pitch a story had passed.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a new year of TIFF if I didn’t have a pile of gripes about the festival. Loving this festival means taking it to task when it screws up. There is still much to be excited about this year. Two of the Canadian documentaries — An Inconvenient Indian and No Ordinary Man — are two of the best films at the festival and of the year, both experimenting with form. And we’ve already seen plenty of other great films worth watching that we’ll be writing about and talking about as the festival continues. TIFF has always had a strong program, and even without the Oscar buzz or all the major auteurs we’ve come to expect, there’s still much to be excited about.
A smaller list of titles hopefully means fewer films get lost in the shuffle. And an online viewing system means you can sample films without losing a meal or a viewing slot for something that just isn’t for you. Perhaps that will encourage critics to take more risks — or simply let them go to bed earlier. Since there’s no all-access pass for audiences, dipping your toes into a film for 20 minutes for $26 is probably beyond most people’s means. Either way, I’m still excited for this new edition, if a bit disappointed that this year’s new, reinvented TIFF didn’t live up to its potential.