Filmmakers relying on virtual world to build buzz at Toronto film festival

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TORONTO — For many filmmakers, a festival is often a crucial first step in the birth of a project or career.

It’s where they feel the first collective response to their projects, have dialogue on stages and red carpets, and shmooz with potential buyers, partners and distributors.

It’s also where critical reviews and word of mouth can help build buzz on the journey to other festivals, a wider release, and maybe even awards.

With COVID-19 rattling the entire circuit, resulting in a trimmed Toronto International Film Festival slate that’s mostly online, the industry is looking for new ways to build momentum.

While there’s no replacing the in-person experience, and the film industry is grappling with weak box offices both in cinemas and online, TIFF and talent are banking on virtual offerings and a smattering of indoor/outdoor screenings to recreate a semblance of a traditional festival rollout.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh, what a crappy time to be premiering films,'” says Toronto-based director Michelle Latimer, who will be debuting two projects at TIFF: the documentary “Inconvenient Indian” and the series “Trickster.”

“But then when I found out what TIFF was doing, I thought, ‘This is really smart.’ And I feel excited that the films are going to reach an audience in a different way.”

TIFF’s 45th edition runs Sept. 10-19 with a mix of digital and socially distanced physical screenings. The Venice festival running now through Sept. 12 is all in-person. Later this month, the New York and Vancouver film festivals will show films both online and in-person, while the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival will be online.

Festivals slated for earlier in the pandemic when lockdown was strict — Cannes, Tribeca, Telluride, SXSW — had to be either cancelled or shifted partially online. But many still announced their lineups, and Cannes held a virtual market for filmmakers to conduct business. Toronto’s Hot Docs festival went all online.

Screening films online or to a limited audience is better than bypassing the festival circuit entirely, says Laurie May, co-president of Canadian film distribution company Elevation Pictures, which has the star-studded “Ammonite,” “The Father” and “I Care a Lot” at TIFF.

“Otherwise those films would just get orphaned, and people have been working on them for years,” May says.

“I think it’s making the best of a bad situation and trying to keep everything moving forward,” she adds. “And I don’t think this is the new world order. I think this is accommodating a difficult time and hoping to get back to normal.”

TIFF will screen films for the public across Canada on its online platform, Bell Digital Cinema, as well as at its downtown TIFF Bell Lightbox headquarters, two drive-ins and an open-air cinema.

As with a regular festival, all screenings have a limit on the number of tickets sold. Online films will be available to watch on different days, with a 24-hour viewing time limit.

COVID-19 safety protocols only allow up to 50 guests per indoor cinema, and patrons must wear masks unless seated in the theatre.

Those in the industry say containing the online audience will help films avoid early overexposure and issues including territorial rights before moving on to other festivals and wider release.

“You want to play other festivals, you don’t want to cannibalize your audience,” says Latimer. “You’re going to have maybe a theatrical release, so we’re always strategizing so that we can optimize all of those screenings and premieres.”

At the same time, geoblocking to all of Canada widens the TIFF audience beyond Toronto.

“It enables people that were never able to come to TIFF to see and connect with us, so it’s a new democratic way to reach out to the public,” says Anne-Claire Lefaivre, director of marketing and audience development at the National Film Board of Canada, which co-produced “Inconvenient Indian.”

“We’re going to be able to do publicity and media buys to make people connect to the film outside Toronto, people in remote communities far away that can connect to the festival. So I think that’s one of the greatest changes that the online editions have.”

With a smaller slate of approximately 50 titles, it may also be easier to stand out this year, says Latimer.

“Especially for a documentary, it would be very easy to get lost in the flourish of TIFF. But with only (about) 50 features, I feel that documentaries will have a special place there, unlike any other year.”

But a lot of this is new territory and the industry is at a crossroads, wondering what type of release works best right now, says Lefaivre. While it seems “people are really hesitant going back in theatre,” she also wonders whether patrons are willing to pay as much for an online film as they would in-theatre.

The NFB recently had two “virtual cinema” releases in collaboration with some indie Canadian cinemas, and the box office “results weren’t that spectacular,” Lefaivre says.

“Our box offices were like 10 per cent, 15 per cent of what we’d normally do in theatres.”

She’s happy TIFF is trying both in-person and online offerings, noting: “It’s hard to have word of mouth when you’re watching a film online.”

It’s also hard to build the same level of excitement and fanfare that’s usually generated by splashy parties and galas.

For the most part, film talent won’t physically be at TIFF due to border restrictions. But many will be online in cast reunions, interactive talks, and Q-and-A’s — some of which will be available globally for free.

TIFF also has a slew of celebrity ambassadors this year, who will interact with audiences and industry delegates digitally. Many film talent have also recorded intros to their films.

British Columbia-based directors Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott, who will debut “The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” at TIFF, recorded their film intros in their living rooms. It was low-production value and their tripods kept falling down, they say with a laugh, but they feel TIFF “has done an amazing job at balancing the concern for safety and health.”

“From what I’ve seen in terms of their planning, they’ve provided a model for how a film festival can take place in these times,” says Bakan.

Latimer plans to do press by phone and zoom during TIFF, and attend in-person screenings for her projects at the Lightbox. The NFB hopes to livestream Q-and-A’s with Latimer from the Lightbox and elsewhere.

Stars will also be seen in the pre-recorded TIFF Tribute Awards, which will air Sept. 15 on CTV and stream through Variety. Honorees include “Ammonite” star Kate Winslet and “The Father” star Anthony Hopkins.

And while in-person jams are a no-go, TIFF-goers can whoop it up in their living rooms with a party through the Planet Africa 25 program, featuring a DJ-ed livestream from a secret location.

TIFF will also have an online industry conference from Sept. 10-14, so international delegates will still be able to conduct business.

International journalists will also be participating in the festival on its online platform.

May says she participated in the Cannes Film Festival’s virtual market in June — the first major virtual market since the pandemic started — “and it was a very good business.”

“I met all the same suppliers, and bought a couple of films and watched a couple of films,” she says. “Would I say I want to do that every year and skip the cost of flying to Cannes? Absolutely not. Because you lose the face-to-face. You lose the talking to other filmmakers. This is a creative industry. You can’t do it sitting at your home Zooming.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press


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