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TIFF After 23 years, TIFF director Piers Handling announces retirement

The Toronto International Film Festival has revealed that 2018 will be Piers Handling’s final year leading the festival.

TIFF/WireImage

When Piers Handling took over as director and chief executive of the Toronto International Film Festival in 1994, the first thing his board chair told him was to begin thinking about his successor. Twenty-three years later, Mr. Handling is finally stepping down.

TIFF has revealed that 2018 will be Mr. Handling's final year leading the festival. At a time of year when attention is normally given to news of which A-list people are coming to the annual red-carpet event, one of the big stories this September involves his departure.

"I felt it was the right moment," Mr. Handling told The Globe and Mail on Friday. "The timing was personal, and not tied to any unhappiness with the organization."

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Mr. Handling, 68, formally submitted his resignation to Jennifer Tory, chair of the TIFF board of directors, on Monday. He had begun contemplating his departure last winter. "This was a gradual process," Mr. Handling said. "It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision."

In a statement released by TIFF, Ms. Tory praised Mr. Handling's leadership. "We are all indebted to him for his years of vision, innovation and dedication to the art of film."

A successor to Mr. Handling was not announced, and he will not be involved in the search for a new director/CEO.

The announcement of Mr. Handling's resignation comes on the heels of last month's presentation of a five-year business plan to TIFF board members. Titled Audience First: TIFF Strategic Plan 2018-2022, the new model stresses "transformative experiences through film," rather than the simple screening of movies.

For the first time in his tenure, Mr. Handling did not lead the TIFF strategic-plan process. Instead, the proposal was developed by TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey and Douglas Allison, chief financial officer at Toronto International Film Festival Group. "They led the charge," said Mr. Handling, who described his smaller role in the process as part of the succession planning. "I was kept up to speed with the direction it was going."

Mr. Handling leaves TIFF at a time when the film industry is in a state of flux. "The theatre business has weaker prospects going forward than at any time in the last 30 years," media analyst Hal Vogel told the trade paper Variety a year ago. "It's a superhero, megablockbuster, tent-pole strategy run amok. There's too much of it, and it's not working."

Festival attendance in 2016 fell slightly from 2015 figures, from 383,970 to 381,185. Year-round attendance to see films on the five screens at the seven-year-old TIFF Bell Lightbox building (one of Mr. Handling's most significant achievements) dropped from 179,653 art-house-cinema enthusiasts in 2015 to 130,585 in 2016, a 27-per-cent drop.

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"Me stepping aside at this time is not because there's a flattening of our audience," said Mr. Handling, whose salary in 2016 was $352,260. "I think it will be a blip. The industry is going through massive challenges and transformation everywhere, but this organization will rethink and pivot as we've always done over the years."

An author and Canadian film historian, Mr. Handling began his career at the Ottawa-based Canadian Film Institute, where he became deputy director. After leaving the institute, he taught Canadian cinema at Carleton University and at his alma mater, Queen's University. He joined TIFF in 1982, ultimately reaching his current post in 1994.

He led multimillion-dollar fundraising efforts and spearheaded the creation of the permanent TIFF Bell Lightbox. Considered to be one of the most influential film festivals in the world, the star-studded TIFF pumps $189-million annually in economic benefits into Toronto, according to a 2012 study.

The festival announced this spring that the 11-day event will show 20 per cent fewer films this year and cancel two of its 16 curated programs. The downsizing follows more than four decades of steady growth for a cinematic happening founded in 1976. "We are trying to fine-tune the balance," TIFF's Mr. Bailey told The Globe at the time. "We're always looking at the festival to see what's working and what needs to be improved."

Highly anticipated films to be screened at this year's festival (Sept. 7 to 17) include Suburbicon (directed by George Clooney, written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac), Mother! (starring Jennifer Lawrence), the Tragically Hip rock-doc Long Time Running and tennis dramas Borg/McEnroe and The Battle of the Sexes (which stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, respectively).

By his count, Mr. Handling has sat in a theatre to watch a festival film on only four or five occasions during his tenure. Highlights include a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo with live orchestral accompaniment that he hosted in 2015 with the 1958 film's star, Kim Novak. "I didn't even realize she was still alive," Mr. Handling said, recalling the moment.

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After 2018, he'll have more time to spend as a moviegoer. "I've accomplished what I've set out to accomplish," he said. "I'm satisfied with the legacy I'm leaving behind, and I think the festival and the organization is in good hands."

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