Q & A

TIFF Director Is Solving Problems Without Naming Names

By Susan O'Neill August 28, 2008, 2:39 PM EDT

Festival director Piers Handling

Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival Group

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is commonly ranked among the top two film festivals in the world (the other being Cannes). “It's obviously one of the premier events in the festival world, which gives you immense clout and immense opportunities,” said Piers Handling, director and C.E.O. of the Toronto International Film Festival Group.

When it launched 33 years ago, TIFF ran about 100 films in five or six cinemas and attracted an audience of 35,000 people, Handling said. This year, the 10-day event—which runs September 4 to 13—will screen 350 films in 35 cinemas, with more than 360,000 people attending, including more than 500 special guests and stars like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, who'll be here to promote Burn After Reading. We checked in with Handling to see how this year's proceedings are coming together.

What makes TIFF unique?
I’ve been to virtually all of the major festivals in the world, and there’s nothing that comes close to the full package that you get here just in terms of the films that come, the major talent that comes, the major directors that come, the public side of the festival, the way the city embraces it, the way that the corporate sector gets involved, the way the politicians take great pride in the event at every level—municipal, provincial, and federal. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a festival where there’s that sense of ownership from every single constituency that we’re trying to service. And that makes me feel pretty amazed actually, and wonderful. But that’s unique to Toronto.

The festival is just over a week away. What are you working on now?
Basically all of the logistics around my own schedule, all the hosting, all the dinners I do. All of the introductions of movies, the Q&As, who's coming, who's not ... last-minute crises that come up that [co-director] Cameron [Bailey] and I are solving. It's more external than internal to be honest. I can't be too specific sadly. I just don't want to embarrass anyone. It's what happens when you're putting a massive event together in a city like this when there's a lot of expectations. There's just a lot of detail. A lot of small and big problems have to be solved. So you're basically waiting for stuff to come at you.

How do you manage the event during the festival?
It's a well-oiled machine. The program team and everybody else actually knows what they're doing. The only time you need to assemble is when there's a problem. [September 11] was a memorable moment...it bisected our festival. I'll never forget that year. And of course at that point in time you were in a crisis mode so we formed crisis committees. But the rest of the time you're just keeping in touch by email with people. Communications is so important during the event itself.

What are some of the biggest challenges in pulling TIFF together?
I think the infrastructure is always a challenge. That scene sort of changes all the time with cinemas opening and closing. [Ensuring] that we've got cinemas in the area that we need them, that's a big challenge. When the festival started we were basically in the Yorkville area, but a number of screens have closed in Yorkville.

Finding a host hotel that is prepared to take us [is also a challenge]. We've now turned into a very, very large event, and you like to have everything together, and that's been very difficult over the last five or six years. Our press office has been separated from our sales industry office. I think that part of it is a really big challenge because the industry want to come here—both the press and the film industry—and have complete ease of access. They don't want to take taxis; they want to find everyone very quickly; they want natural meeting spots. That's, to be honest, one of the biggest challenges—to keep a true centre of focus for the event.

The other challenge I think is just making sure that you're not complacent, making sure that the festival continues to serve the audience, our primary constituency. Despite massive media and industry attention, the focus still goes on access to the screenings by the public. I think the international balance of the festival is always something I'm very aware of, too—that no one sector overwhelms the rest of the festival. And, clearly with Hollywood taking Toronto so seriously for the last 10 years, that's a tough balance; making sure that you've got room for films from Afghanistan, Iran, Burkina Faso as well as from Hollywood.

How are films selected for TIFF and how long does that process take?
It starts almost as soon as this festival ends. Some of us start to travel in the fall. It's just a way of keeping in touch with suppliers, with people in the industry, filmmakers, producers, sales agents who you're going to be drawing on, on a year round basis. The actual film selection doesn't seriously start for any of us until January, following Sundance ... Then in March/April there's a big trip that happens to Los Angeles where you drop into all the studios and the mini majors—the boutique operations of the studios—just to get more of a specific sense about what they're talking about for their fall releases. The rubber really hits the road for a lot of us in Cannes. Some of the programmers are traveling before Cannes and after Cannes in a significant way, myself included ... I go to London, Paris, Rome, and Warsaw.

How do you promote the festival?

It's a bunch of things. We have developed, over decades, a very close relationship with the media, and they're some of our closest friends. They basically promote and do a lot of marketing for us. We worked out very early the way we wanted to roll out our press. We do it over a period of the entire summer, starting from June through to August. You are teasing people in June, you are giving them more detailed information in late June or early July and getting them primed for buying their tickets. You're starting to release titles slowly, building up anticipation. [We realized that doing] it all in one great big honking press conference in August was not the way to grab the attention of this city. So you'll basically see that there's a TIFF story virtually every week of the entire summer in the papers as we roll out press announcements. And that's a very conscious strategy on our part to hold the attention of this city. It's a strategy that's obviously worked, but it’s a strategy that we've had to pay attention to.

This is the first year TIFF is offering free public programming in Yonge-Dundas Square. How did that come about?
It was prompted by the fact that AMC has just opened their new cinemas there. We’re using 10 of those screens and, of course, basically you walk out of the AMC and you’re at Yonge-Dundas Square. The Ryerson is just around the corner, as is the Elgin, but we’ve never had the reason to do anything down in YDS. This year there is obviously all kinds of opportunity for us, so we’ll be doing free screenings every night, and we’ll be doing public concerts with musicians, all associated with the festival.

Are there any particular films or aspects of the festival that you’re looking forward to this year?

I always look forward to seeing my friends come in from around the world. I’ve been doing the job now for so many years. I have a great, wonderful network of people literally on every continent, so it’s always fun to see them. It’s terrific to actually meet  young, new filmmakers. They may well turn into the next big names and, of course, many of them have over the years. I’ll never forget meeting [Steven] Soderbergh for the first time after he made Sex, Lies, and Videotape, walking up to him at a screening in Park City and saying I wanted to invite his film to Toronto. You just don’t know. Some people fade from the scene and some people don’t. So just meeting the people is always, for me, the biggest charge of the festival.

The second biggest charge is the way the audience, the people of Toronto embrace the festival.  You can’t ignore it, the lineups outside cinemas, the fact that it is just a topic of conversation everywhere. It is incredibly rewarding when you put this much work into an event to see it embraced and beloved by everyone. And then you’re always curious about how some of the films you really love will do, and it’s phenomenal to see when they do well and they take off. The public side of it and actually meeting the talent, those are the two things that really turn my crank.

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