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TIFF’s next act: The inside story of how the Toronto International Film Festival got too big and lost its way

TIFF 2017

TIFF's next act: the inside story of how the film festival got too big and lost its way

While it may not be obvious from its star-studded exterior, the arts organization that put Toronto on the map – and generates an estimated $189-million for the city – is grappling with increasingly pressing challenges. Barry Hertz and Molly Hayes look behind the scenes at TIFF's internal struggle

This week, Toronto has been teeming with power brokers, deal makers, social climbers and all the obligatory buzz and glamour and bluster that come when the Toronto International Film Festival takes over the city. While public shrieks have been reserved for the celebrities, private whispers have revolved around a topic that hit closer to home: the departure of Piers Handling, and whoever might succeed him as TIFF's CEO.

On the eve of the 42nd annual festival, Handling dropped an unexpected third-act twist into TIFF's narrative: He will be stepping down after 2018's edition.

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

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The move marks the end of a 23-year career with one of the largest festivals in the world, and caps a lifetime spent in the trenches of cinema. "It's a vocation for me; it's never been a job," he said. "I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world."

Piers Handling attends the TIFF Soiree, an annual fundraiser and celebratory kickoff for the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, on Sept. 6, 2017. EVAN AGOSTINI/INVISION/AP

There are countless cinephiles who would agree, and might happily queue for blocks and blocks – the length of a rush-ticket line outside Roy Thomson Hall, perhaps – for the chance to step into Handling's shoes.

But whoever ends up taking this position will have a job that goes far beyond hobnobbing with Angelina Jolie or sipping wine with Francis Ford Coppola. The new CEO will have to steer the organization through one of the rockiest phases in its history and address an identity crisis that may be Handling's lasting legacy.

While it may not be obvious from its glitzy exterior, with its red carpets, smiling celebrities and buzzy premieres, the festival that put Toronto on the map – and generates an estimated $189-million for the city – is grappling with increasingly pressing challenges.

Industry veterans complain that the two-week event is bloated and no longer a great place to do business, while Toronto-based film fans grouse about ticket prices and long lineups.

Audiences aren't showing up for screenings at the Lightbox building on King Street West, designed to provide a headquarters for TIFF year-round and serve as a draw for both local film lovers and tourists.

And the medium of film itself is losing its lustre as streaming sites such as Netflix and Amazon Prime shift viewers' focus toward small screens.

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Meanwhile, the organization is grappling with a deficit and an exodus of senior staff.

Conversations with more than 40 current and former TIFF employees, as well as about two dozen other individuals close to the organization, present a picture of an institution whose vision is unarticulated and whose current business model appears to diverge with industry and audience trends. Many who've left TIFF also complain about a challenging work environment. (Many of The Globe's sources agreed to speak only on the condition that they not be identified, due to concerns that this will negatively affect their careers in the arts industry.)

Last weekend, TIFF started the year-long farewell tour of the man who helped "TIFF become the festival it is today: the largest public event dedicated to films lovers in the world."

But like many media executives, Handling didn't count on the world changing. Whoever inherits the organization he's leaving behind may have a difficult time finding their own Hollywood ending.


TIFF’s current home, the $196-million TIFF Bell Lightbox on King Street West, marked an ambitious stage in the history of a festival with humble beginnings as a once-a-year event in the 1970s.

Dusty Cohl and Bill Marshall, shown in 2000, co-founded what would become the Toronto International Film Festival in 1976 along with Henk Van der Kolk. JOHN HRYNIUK

TIFF’s original incarnation in 1976 was called the Festival of Festivals. This was the cover of the original program book. BURNS, COOPER, DONAHUE AND FLEMING

The Festival of Festivals showed 80 films in its first year. Passes cost $6. TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

On Oct. 25, 1976, The Globe’s Bryan Johnson gave a ‘bravo’ to the festival’s first outing, though he highlighted that major U.S. studios failed to attend. Today, TIFF is one of the major events of the film industry calendar, attracting filmmakers from around the world. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Dusty Dream

Like many showbiz daydreams, TIFF was conceived on a Cannes terrace, right near the bar.

It was at the famed Carlton Hotel where, in the '70s, Toronto lawyer Dusty Cohl perfected the art of the liquid lunch, cozying up to critics and studio executives during his annual jaunts to the French Riviera. Cohl floated the idea of a Toronto film festival with his friend Bill Marshall, a communications expert who had formed his own film company. The pair teamed up with Henk Van der Kolk, a former architect who worked alongside Marshall producing films for the Ontario government, and TIFF was born.

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In 1976, the trio announced Toronto's first "Festival of Festivals," a week-long celebration of international cinema. Film-starved Torontonians ate up its 80 movies and $6 passes, with 7,000 people hitting the fest each day. Steadily, the annual event grew in size, prominence and star power, with Hollywood studios eager to show off Oscar-friendly wares to a passionate audience, and celebrities happy to show up for media junkets that didn't require a transatlantic flight.

Four decades later, TIFF is huge – one of the biggest events in the film industry calendar, and easily the highest-profile charity in the Canadian arts landscape. The festival now showcases hundreds of films – the 2016 program featured 296 (more than twice as many as Sundance and six times the Cannes offering), but the growth has been accompanied by industry griping. "To put it bluntly, TIFF has become a dumping ground, serving up hundreds of new movies with hardly any discernible sense of curation," Variety magazine's chief film critic, Peter Debruge, wrote at the close of last year's event. Industry deal makers used to show up at the festival expecting to see – and acquire – must-see films, movies they could rely on to become big-screen hits and Oscar contenders. But with so many films in the mix, "no [media] outlet …. can see and review everything, potential buyers don't know what to check out, and publicists find it virtually impossible to bring attention to small, deserving films that get steamrolled by the sheer volume on offer," Debruge wrote.

As a result, filmmakers seem less keen on bringing their work to TIFF – a fact that became abundantly clear at the festival's opening press conference on July 25, where Handling and artistic director Cameron Bailey introduced this year's program.

A week earlier, Venice had snagged the buzzy Matt Damon comedy Downsizing for its opening. The month before, New York got Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying, starring Oscar catnip Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston. TIFF needed a similar show stopper – a blockbuster that matters, like Blade Runner 2049, or a lightning bolt from someone setting the world on fire, like Xavier Dolan. But on that morning in July, Handling and Bailey didn't announce an opening film, promising answers on that front later. In the end, the under-the-radar tennis biopic Borg vs. McEnroe kicked off the fest – a film that isn't even the buzziest tennis biopic of the season (that would be the Emma Stone drama Battle of the Sexes).

It was the continuation of a trend that saw competing festivals Venice and Telluride snapping up world premieres – Moonlight and La La Land last year; Battle of the Sexes and The Shape of Water this year – leaving Toronto with warmed-over seconds.

This year's festival has scaled back somewhat – in February, organizers revealed that the 2017 event would have two fewer venues and 20 per cent fewer films, providing what a TIFF press release described as a more "tightly curated" experience.

But TIFF has grown in other ways, too, and there is an increasing sense that the organization's current challenges can be traced back to one particular expansion: the construction of the TIFF Lightbox, the highly ambitious downtown building that was designed to be the crown jewel of the organization. Home to the festival offices and to three floors of cinemas and exhibition space, the Lightbox was intended to attract film lovers and tourists throughout the year. But its screenings and events have failed to generate big box office.

For Handling, the idea for a headquarters had been brewing since 1987, when he was named programming director – but it was an idea with history, too.

"The voyage to this building is the dream that not just I had, but a few others, including [former festival director] Wayne Clarkson, to build a centre of critical study somewhere in Canada," said Handling, who spoke with The Globe alongside artistic director Cameron Bailey and COO Michele Maheux in late August, two weeks before announcing his retirement. "Why in the hell did we, as Canadians, have to go elsewhere?"

The Lightbox was no small project. Unlike, say, the single-screen Hot Docs cinema a few blocks north, TIFF wanted five screens housing 1,400 seats – plus museum-scale exhibitions, a film reference library and archive, a retail store, and a vast array of educational and community-outreach initiatives. It was a dedicated space for the devout cinephile – and an unprecedented move in the art-house world.

The first warning sign against erecting a high-brow multiplex in the early throes of a digital age was just how difficult it was to come up with the money. Plans for the building were revealed in 2003, but TIFF struggled for years to reach its fundraising target of $196-million.

"We thought it would take three to five years," said Brendan Calder, a former board chair. "It took 10."

Dalton McGuinty's Liberals kicked in $35-million – plus a low-interest provincial loan of $46-million, which was made possible after TIFF was deemed an "arts training facility" by Queen's Park in 2009.

When the Lightbox finally opened its doors in 2010, Handling proclaimed that it would "put Toronto on the international map year-round," becoming a "magnet" that would walk the fine line between cinematic integrity and commercial viability.

In the seven years since, the industry landscape has changed dramatically. At the turn of the decade, the conversion from celluloid to digital projectors seemed like the biggest possible industry shakeup. Now, the rise of streaming services and digital downloads has radically altered the business model and institutions are forced to innovate or die trying.

As evidenced from this summer's movie season – the worst in more than a decade – fewer and fewer people are going out to the movies. Major chains like Cineplex have diversified, inching away from cinema and closer toward interactive entertainment. The British Film Institute, which runs the London Film Festival, augments its brick-and-mortar cinemas with a vast array of digital content from its archives. The Sundance Institute has branched out into subscription-based streaming services, offering an archive of past presentations for home streaming. The Venice Film Festival offers selections on a pay-per-view model. Toronto's Hot Docs festival enjoys branded partnerships with everyone from iTunes to the Cineplex Store, and is expanding into Britain for Hot Docs London.

Film organizations across the world must now do a delicate dance between accommodating new digital demands and ensuring that the theatrical experience isn't sacrificed in favour of disruptive technology. Cannes has already tripped over the issue, allowing Netflix films to compete for its prestigious Palme d'Or Award this year, drawing angry complaints from French theatre owners.

TIFF has lurched and stumbled in its quest to keep up. Its website doesn't make any of the festival's films available to home viewers, limiting its content instead to a small collection of National Film Board productions and a tangled web of poorly-promoted podcasts, press-conference videos and editorial posts. Over the past year, TIFF has at least begun playing catch-up, investing $700,000 into the digital arena in an effort to expand its global audience and drive new revenue. But for the most part, Handling has placed his biggest bet on the Lightbox – a gamble that doesn't seem to be paying off.

TIFF doesn't make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it's difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it's bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn't become a significant draw for film enthusiasts.

The Lightbox's attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema's most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox's walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city's most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside.

TIFF "still has a world-class brand," said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, "but it's going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance."


TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, left, is widely seen to be Mr. Handling’s heir-apparent for the festival’s top job.

Who's next?

When Handling, 68, announced his retirement, TIFF's official press release noted he has been director and CEO "for almost 25 years," since 1994. Few, if any, comparable arts organizations have witnessed such a long executive tenure – which makes succession that much harder and more delicate a task.

Most inside and outside the Lightbox agree that Cameron Bailey is the heir apparent. Like Handling, Bailey comes to TIFF with a deep appreciation for film. His cinematic education blossomed in university, while studying at the University of Western Ontario, where he got his honours degree in English literature. "It was a contemporary cinema course, which began with Godard's Breathless," Bailey told The Globe two years ago. "It then went everywhere but Hollywood, so it was Asian cinema, it was Latin American and Brazilian cinema novo, it was Italian and African film. That introduced whole new worlds to me."

Bailey worked as a film critic before joining TIFF in 1990 as a programmer, securing the position of festival co-director in 2007 after Noah Cowan relinquished the post to become artistic director of the Lightbox . (Cowan, the original heir apparent to Handling, would depart in 2014 for the San Francisco Film Society.)

Along the way, Bailey became a familiar, dapper talking head when it comes to matters of cinema, able to work both a room of cineastes and a dinner table of wealthy donors, in contrast to Handling's more introverted persona – a self-described "loner."

"Great leaders paint a vision, and the avatar for great leadership is storytelling," said Ron Moore, a former long-time TIFF board member. "Every great executive I've worked with tells a story – to consumers, to staff, to get people to buy the story or work for it. Cameron has those skills. Does he have the day-to-day [profit and loss] experience? No, but you can learn that – there's no mystery to those things – if he wants to."

That seems to be the case. In addition to quietly taking on an expanded Lightbox role last fall – essentially assuming the responsibilities left vacant by Cowan three years ago – Bailey recently enrolled as a guest student at an intensive Rotman School of Management course for soon-to-be MBA graduates, taught by former TIFF board chair Calder.

It seems to be a question of when, not if, Bailey will take over. Yet when pressed in an interview last month – two weeks before Handling's departure was announced – Bailey demurred. Taking Calder's course, he said, was about "learning to be a better manager, it doesn't go beyond that. A lot of people are subject-matter experts here, and they've risen in the ranks and now are managing people."

Meanwhile, TIFF is undertaking a global search for Handling's replacement – possibly a formality, or an indication that the board wants to avoid placing another "diehard film geek," as Handling has often been described, into a role that now requires serious business acumen, and the proven ability to put butts in seats.

"Cameron is great, but you have to wonder about the last time they put a person who came up through programming in charge," said one source close to the operation. "They now need to keep business top of mind."

Jennifer Tory, chair of the TIFF board, told The Globe that the organization will be looking for, among other things, someone who can keep up with the fast pace of change in the film industry – "someone very comfortable with innovation, and continuing to evolve the organization."

The health of the Lightbox, and TIFF itself, may depend upon it.


The master control room at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Attendance at the Lightbox fell by 49,000 visitors last year.

Piers Handling promised the Lightbox would ‘put Toronto on the international map year-round.’ But the film industry and audience habits have changed dramatically in the seven years since it opened.

Inside the lightbox

On paper, one of TIFF's recent bets, Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas, was the perfect fit for the Lightbox. The summer-long retrospective was a complete look at one of today's top filmmakers. TIFF even managed to get Assayas himself to make four in-person appearances to discuss his oeuvre.

When the series kicked off on June 22, with the French filmmaker appearing before a rare 35mm print of his 1994 film Cold Water, it attracted an almost sold-out crowd of 200 people to Cinema 3 – but earned just $1,200 (more than a quarter of the tickets were complimentary). The following night, Assayas's introduction of Clean brought in 140 people, for about $1,000. The day after that, a digital restoration of the director's classic 1996 satire Irma Vep brought in 95 people, for $630.

Subsequent screenings averaged about 65 people. New-release programming has also failed to catch fire: One recent selection, Lady Macbeth, got a huge internal push, but on the first Saturday of its opening weekend in July, only 220 people showed up for eight screenings across the building's two biggest theatres. Provocative titles that might lure in curious Lightbox newbies bypass the building completely (the arty cannibal tale Raw went to the Royal; Terrence Malick's sex-and-soliloquy epic Song to Song played Cineplex's Yonge-Dundas; Ashley McKenzie's remarkable Werewolf languished at the tiny Carlton).

TIFF has undoubtedly experienced, and engineered, hits. Its Cinematheque program has a fiercely loyal crowd. And Moonlight was championed by Bailey from its festival debut to its months-long run at the Lightbox, where it earned about $320,000. But it was not exclusive to TIFF, and pulled in $440,000 a few blocks north, at the Cineplex-owned Varsity.

According to comScore, box office for the Lightbox's year-round programming grossed between $1.2-million and $1.3-million last year, including taxes. Subtract distribution fees – 40 to 45 per cent – and it's likely its screenings contributed, in net terms, between roughly $660,000 and $780,000 to TIFF's earned revenue of $20.5-million.

Combined with a thinning attendance, the numbers represent a serious challenge if TIFF is relying on old-school film exhibition to help pay off at least some of the $33-million that was still outstanding on its provincial government loan as of Dec. 31.

But Handling defended TIFF's high-minded programming in his interview with The Globe. "We'd love to have more people doing every activity we're involved with. But we're trying to show certain films that we think are transformative," he said. "The exclusives, it's nice when you get them. But the raison d'etre of the building isn't that."

Certainly, they run a host of charitable programs for the community, including the Share Her Journey campaign which aims to get more women in front of and behind the camera.

Still, the yawning gap between the art-house films showcased at the Lightbox and the increasingly commercial offerings of the annual festival reflects what some have called an identity crisis at TIFF. Is it an arts-focused forum for esoteric, global cinema or a market-based organization that serves the business needs of the movie-making industry?

Even if screenings aren't the Lightbox's sole purpose, its other initiatives are flailing as well. Handling once told The Globe that the "biggest risk" for the Lightbox is its museum-style exhibitions. TIFF made a splash in 2010 with its initial offering, the Tim Burton exhibit on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art, which attracted 111,000 paying visitors over five months. Subsequent efforts have been less successful (Grace Kelly drew 48,000) or flops (Federico Fellini had about 10,000).

And so, last fall, TIFF eliminated the majority of its exhibitions department – although its fate may have been sealed years before.

"The demise of the exhibition program was when Cowan left. He was the one who championed it," said Barr Gilmore, who designed TIFF exhibitions such as the Fellini and Stanley Kubrick shows. "But doing two or three major exhibitions in a year is a lot. There was a conversation about, are we a museum or a consumer art gallery or both? That never got resolved."

Cowan said that when "the theory of exhibitions met reality, it was a bit more difficult."

"We were told going in that Toronto is a hard city when it comes to museums and galleries," Handling said. "The financial risk was very high, so we decided the priorities of the organization were going to be somewhat different."

For now, as the Art Gallery of Ontario prepares to open its Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters exhibit, TIFF will use its gallery space for press conferences and event rentals.

The revenue will likely be appreciated. While TIFF gets an undisclosed share from the two Oliver & Bonacini restaurants in the Lightbox, it doesn't receive parking revenue from the underground lot – unlike nearby Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which earns $1.85-million in parking revenue each year. Nor does it appear to be maximizing the revenue potential of its ground-level retail space, some of which currently sits empty.

The festival now faces a $1-million deficit, though Handling suggests this isn't a cause for concern. "Our operating deficit last year was $200,000, and then we invested another $700,000 in digital," he said. "It was a blip. We have a rigorous finance and audit committee on the board, and an extremely competent CFO in Doug [Allison]." (A request for an interview with Allison was denied.)

TIFF's new five-year plan for 2018-2022, authored by Bailey and Allison, aims to offer a turnaround. An early draft of the strategy, titled "Audience First" and obtained by The Globe ahead of its planned fall release, arrives with a bold declaration: "From 2018-2022, TIFF will direct our focus more toward audience – more people, more often, more impact. Our future starts now."

The plan acknowledges that, "Our main product used to be film. Now our main service must be transformative experiences through film." And Bailey and Allison identify "key actions" on how to get there, including "Designing Lifelong Learning Stream" and "Leveraging Audience Data." But the steps read like platitudes at best ("Tailor Lightbox Spaces to Audience Segments") or daydreams at worst (despite backing away from exhibitions, one suggestion is a "Year-Round Attraction at the Lightbox" to drive a $500,000 annual increase in revenue; another seeks a growth in paid audience numbers by at least 22 per cent by 2022).

Another part of the plan is a "reimagining" of the entire building. "We want to make sure the building is actually tuned to the audience segments we're going after," Bailey said recently.

As a not-for-profit, TIFF is designed to end the year at either zero or with a slight surplus. But with faltering attendance at the Lightbox, there is a natural pressure to find other, more corporate – and patron-friendly – ways to pay its operating costs and satisfy its debt, a pressure that may have crept into TIFF's shiniest offering: the festival.


Jessica Chastain poses with fans as she arrives for the premiere of Woman Walks Ahead on Sept. 10, 2017. A decade ago, a single adult ticket to TIFF was less than $22, including tax; today, an evening or weekend ticket runs from $28 to $35. Galas and ‘premium’ screenings range from $48 to $59.

Idris Elba greets fans at the premiere of The Mountain Between Us. Last year’s festival saw 2,800 fewer attendees.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, right, and her partner Jane Rounthwaite arrive on the red carpet for the Borg/McEnroe premiere. In 2009, funding and a low-interest loan from the government of Ms. Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, helped save the capital campaign to build the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Whose festival is it?

When Marshall, Cohl and Van der Kolk first imagined the ideal Festival of Festivals attendee, they were likely picturing someone like Matthew Price. The bookseller and movie fanatic started attending TIFF in 1992, and for 24 years, he planned his year around those 11 days in September. But last year, something changed.

The crowds seemed more business-oriented, and the costs more prohibitive. A decade ago, a single adult ticket was less than $22, including tax; today, an evening or weekend ticket runs from $28 to $35, and that's not including galas or "premium" screenings ($52 to $59). You could also be hit with a $2 to $7 surcharge, thanks to the "dynamic" pricing initiative introduced last year.

So, Price walked away.

"It evolved away from why I started going," he said. "It's more about courting people who aren't regular moviegoers, who are there for the parties. As the festival grows, as it fragments the audience, it becomes less fun."

Price isn't alone. Last year's festival saw 2,800 fewer attendees – not a huge number considering the event's 381,000 total, but a worrisome dip given that in the past, attendance only rose. Certain audiences may have realized that TIFF was increasingly interested in glossier, more sponsor-friendly programming. The 2017 slim-down, for instance, saw the elimination of TIFF's least commercial and artistically most unconventional slates: City to City, which showcased films from a different metropolis each year, and Vanguard, a mature version of the Midnight Madness lineup.

Perhaps to compensate local cinephiles, TIFF this year offered a range of free events, including a screening of Dunkirk at the Cinesphere, and restorations of Canadian classics like Rude. But it again closed King Street, creating traffic chaos for the sake of marketing – the street is typically filled with booths and tables hosted by corporate sponsors – and subtly boosting TIFF's annual attendance numbers in the process. (The organization counts the thousands of people who pass through "Festival Street" as participants in free TIFF programming, enabling it to claim a total annual audience figure of 2.89 million people last year. One senior source dismisses that figure, which includes 989,000 "free attendance" participants, as "holding a finger in the air and making assumptions.")

The pivot away from transformative cinematic experiences toward brand-friendly marketing opportunities makes sense from a financial standpoint. Corporate sponsorships contributed about $10.6-million of TIFF's $40.5-million annual budget for 2016, although that figure represented an 18-per-cent drop over the previous year. Handling and COO Maheux explain the loss as another one-time aberration, however. One sponsor that fell through "was a phone that started blowing up on planes," Maheux said. "That was 11th-hour. Boom. Gone." And Tory said TIFF has hired a new major gifts officer, Debra Kwinter, a fundraiser from Mount Sinai Hospital, who she expects will develop a strong case for support for the organization.

Many of its big, long-time sponsors did renew, including Bell and Visa, who each signed on for another five years. Loring Phinney, vice-president of corporate marketing for Bell – the name that has adorned the Lightbox since it opened – called TIFF an "exceptional" sponsorship host. Brenda Woods, Vice President of Marketing for Visa Canada, said that after 20 years of TIFF sponsorship (which this year included the Visa screening room at the Princess of Wales Theatre, as well as a presence on King Street's "activation alley"), her company still sees "incredible value" for its cardholders.

Asked whether he was worried about future corporate sponsorships, Handling replied, "I wouldn't say there's panic. Concern? You bet. But this organization raises far more money from the corporate sector than any arts institution in the country. The growth area is philanthropy. That's where we're putting major resources."

Finding new ways to bring in money has always been a goal of TIFF's, and long-time festival goers like Matthew Price also raise their eyebrows at what they see as the organization's increasing tilt toward privilege and access. Case in point: TIFF Noir, an invitation-only program launched in 2011 that offers "a superlative new level of membership" so elite that it's reserved for just 50 people, according to the welcome package. "A card that grants you access so complete, you require nothing else. No tickets. No lineups. No sold-out screenings. Simply all of the unparalleled and exclusive privileges you deserve."

When it was launched, TIFF Noir cost $25,000 per year. The cost of ultimate access today: $35,000.

Adam Moryto, an actor whose grandfather founded Ontario's Ram Forest Products, is a Noir member. He likened TIFF today to a fence: there are those on the inside, and those clamouring to get in. "There's a price to pay for that," he said. "Money does make the world go round."


Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey were among several film-festival employees who made Ontario's 'Sunshine List' of public-sector employees making $100,000 or more annually. Search through the most recent list here.

The trouble inside

The salaries of TIFF's top ranks appear in line with similar organizations elsewhere. In 2016, Handling made $352,000 – more than, say, Lesli Klainberg ($321,000, according to 2015 figures), executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Centre, but less than Sundance executive director Keri Putnam ($580,000 in 2015). He and 16 other TIFF employees appear on the Sunshine List, the annual report that details all public-sector employees earning $100,000 or more per year. (Charitable agencies that receive more than $1-million from Queen's Park are required to disclose top salaries.)

But at the lower end of the TIFF spectrum, many current and former employees said their compensation didn't reflect what they described as punishing work. Some who have worked in the middle of the organization reported earning less than $45,000.

A number said they were willing to take less money than they could have made elsewhere, because they wanted TIFF to succeed in its charitable mission, but didn't anticipate the long work hours and stress that extended beyond the festival period.

Festival hours are one thing – everyone goes into TIFF knowing September and the month leading up to it is a nightmare. The shock, they said, came during the rest of the year, the result of what some described as a high-pressure atmosphere designed to drive revenue in the Lightbox.

The problems appear to extend to management levels and above: Three of TIFF's four vice-presidents and two departmental directors have left since 2016.

For his part, Handling said there are "probably rough edges" to the organization, but he said he takes such concerns seriously. "I don't feel I work in a toxic work environment, but I'm not one of the other 200 employees," he said. "I think I have my pulse on certain things, but I think when you're an organization of that size, there may be people who feel this is maybe not the right organization for them."

At an average annual rate of 18 per cent, TIFF's staff turnover is "below the Ontario benchmark of 25 per cent," according to a spokesperson citing the Boland Survey, which examines the non-profit sector. Yet a Boland official notes its work is based on a "small sample size" and is "not a representative survey." The churn is higher than that of comparable arts organizations including the Ontario Arts Council, the Canadian Opera Company, the TSO, the National Arts Centre, and the Royal Ontario Museum, whose staff churn rates hovered last year between five and 13 per cent.

While TIFF didn't supply its churn rate for 2016, The Globe found at least 45 employees, or about 22 per cent, had left between September, 2016, and August, 2017. The departures were both voluntary and involuntary, though some had more pressing reasons than others.

Jennie Robinson Faber worked for TIFF in 2016 as a creative technology lead and was responsible for relaunching the website. The job was huge – Faber was hired in January, but the deadline to complete the job was July and she was assigned only a three-person team. Still, she was motivated by TIFF's brand. "It was an obvious problem that I had the skill set to help solve," she said.

Like other staff across various departments, Faber described an untenable work environment rife with miscommunication, mismanagement and a questionable overtime policy. (TIFF does not pay overtime; staff can instead accrue up to 16 days of lieu time, a limit many call grossly inadequate given the demands of festival season.) "I would not hesitate to call it exploitative. They would not be able to do what they've done without exploiting people," Faber said. "My health suffered. Even after festival season, you launch right into fall season. There's never time to see if people are okay. And people are not okay."

Bailey acknowledged that culture is something he's been tackling head-on since taking on his expanded role in the Lightbox this past winter.

"We've got a more integrated team, we're meeting every Monday afternoon, talking as an organization, as opposed to 'my area vs. my area,' that kind of thing," he said. "We're still in the early stages of that … but it's now one conversation, where it was a little fractured in the past.

Maheux chalked up the turnover to the young age of TIFF's work force.

"[Our staff] is an average age of 36 and more than 20 per cent of the team is under 30," she said. "The average for a millennial in any workplace … is 1.8 years."

"A lot of people, they've either hit the ceiling here or want to move on," Handling added. "Is it tough to see them go? It's heartbreaking for me, for some of them. But they've gone on and flourished."


A reel of film from Stray Dog is inspected for damage at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The future

As the festival wraps up this weekend, what will TIFF be celebrating?

It might be the pride of attracting the brightest lights of Hollywood. Perhaps the fact that, 42 years after Cohl, Marshall and Van der Kolk had a crazy dream, Handling and his team helped make it a reality, again and again.

Whatever the cause, it is hard to deny the wave of excitement that ripples across the city every September – a feeling equally hard to recapture during the rest of the year inside the Lightbox, Handling's lasting gift to the organization. In the waning days of August, a week before Handling would announce his departure, the lobby of the Lightbox was nearly empty. Upstairs, inside Cinema 4, a screening of Lady Macbeth was in progress. The sound was perfect. The visuals were crisp. The seats were comfy. It was an enjoyable afternoon for the entire audience – of four people.

TIFF's new CEO will no doubt aim to fill more of those seats. As the organization's strategic plan notes, TIFF's future "starts now," and the new mantra appears to be "more people, more often, more impact."

To transform the way people see the world through film, then, TIFF will need to transform itself. Enjoy the show.


TIFF 2017: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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