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TIFF overhaul receives cautious applause from industry insiders

Canadian producer Robert Lantos, seen at his home in Brentwood, Calif., supports TIFF’s recent changes. In order for the festival to remain one of the world’s best, he says, ‘it has to be about quality, not quantity, and not celebrities.’

J. Emilio Flores/The Globe and Mail

Robert Lantos, one of Canada's most prominent producers, is a busy man during the Toronto International Film Festival – maybe too busy. And he's tired of getting stuck in traffic. "I think it has become too sprawling and in some ways it could use a little bit more curatorial discrimination," he says, putting the emphasis on the latter.

Mr. Lantos is hardly alone in this assessment. In the blood sport that can be navigating TIFF – the film screenings, celebrity-spotting, deal-making and party-going (add news conferences for reporters) – another requisite activity is the griping. It's too big, too Hollywood, too expensive. It's lost its way. What about the Canadian films? Indie films? People point to other festivals – Cannes, Telluride – that are more tightly curated and lament how overwhelming it is to sift through nearly 300 features for the hidden gems.

"There's been a lot of pride watching TIFF's elevation into [one of the top] film festivals in the world," Tyler Levine, a Toronto-based producer, said. "But watching TIFF's prominence increase has also made it slightly more difficult for a smaller Canadian producer like myself. It's like watching your best friend become famous."

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On Thursday, TIFF announced major changes. "We're offering a refreshed, more tightly curated edition," a news release stated. It will show 20 per cent fewer films, scrap the Vanguard and City to City programs and drop two venues – the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and the Isabel Bader Theatre.

While we won't call it a standing ovation, the move is receiving cautious applause from the industry.

"I think TIFF is one of the great film festivals in the world and I think it's a sign of a truly responsible director to recognize that the allure of bigger does not always mean better.There's a great temptation in any organization to grow and I think sometimes a bigger organization can lose focus so I admire that they're intent on honing their curatorial focus by restricting their growth," says Martin Katz, president of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, in Los Angeles for the Oscars.

"TIFF has become quite unwieldy and the selection was way too large and a lot of things were getting lost in the process … so I think a more rigorous selection process is definitely a good move," said Hussain Amarshi, whose Mongrel Media had 16 films at TIFF last year.

Mr. Lantos (Eastern Promises, The Sweet Hereafter) also supports the changes. "The festival can't afford to be known to tamper with its pristine reputation and to become known as a dumping ground for any movie which can attract lots of noise on the red carpet because some celebrity walks on it. … For a festival to remain considered one of the top in the world, it has to be about quality, not quantity, and not celebrities."

His comments reflect the concerns outlined in a widely read column this past September by Variety's chief film critic Peter Debruge, which brought the criticism to new public prominence. "To put it bluntly, TIFF has become a dumping ground, serving up hundreds of new movies with hardly any discernible sense of curation," Mr. Debruge wrote.

"What I was saying in my piece was nothing that hadn't been said before, but I gave a megaphone to opinions I was hearing and have been hearing around the festival for years … and I think that somehow that feedback was not finding its way back to the top and it seemed to be a real wake-up call," Mr. Debruge said on Thursday, adding that he didn't want to take credit for the shift – and that he has a lot of respect for the festival.

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His column received more feedback than anything Mr. Debruge has written. "People came out of the woodwork to basically tell me, amen this is something that needed to be said and it's the reason I stopped going to Toronto five years ago, or we're all kind of obliged to play along, but this is just out of hand."

Whether the changes announced Thursday address these concerns is another story. For instance, Mr. Debruge says Vanguard and City to City offered strong programs.

"The problem is it all sort of gets overwhelmed by the poorest programming in the festival, which is the Galas and Special [Presentations] where a lot of flat-out awful movies will premiere because they have movie stars and because the festival needs to fill its biggest venues," he said. "And they have to sell those tickets that are way more expensive so they fill those theatres with the prospect of 'hey you get to see a movie in the same room as Nicole Kidman,' never mind that this is not a great Nicole Kidman movie; the chance to see a movie star, the chance to have a flashy experience. There are so many of those. There were twice as many world premieres in galas and special screenings as there were last year and a lot of it is garbage."

Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson has also been outspoken about his concerns about TIFF and chose to release his most recent film, Operation Avalanche, at Sundance instead. Reached Thursday, Mr. Johnson said he would like to see the number of films at TIFF reduced even further and a stronger focus on Canadian films.

"It is extremely challenging for first-time Canadian filmmakers to get noticed at that festival. And it shouldn't be. In fact, that should be in many ways the thrust of TIFF in my opinion," he said. "It should be: We're bringing you new Canadian voices – and it's important; you should listen to this."

Suzanne Cheriton, a publicist who works regularly with the Canadian film industry, also has concerns about homegrown films becoming lost at TIFF.

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"I think that downsizing the festival somewhat is a great opportunity to continue to try to balance the curation of the festival. And that would be amazing if that's what were to happen, to try and keep the balance between the big galas and the celebrity element balanced with that spirit of discovery," said Ms. Cheriton, who has raised her concerns about Canadian films getting lost in the mix with TIFF's artistic director, Cameron Bailey.

"It is a challenge, given the high profile of some of those big Oscar contenders, for the Canadian industry to benefit from the international profile and presence at TIFF."

Ms. Cheriton also expressed some sadness over the loss of the Vanguard program. But Mr. Levine says the festival's decision makes sense.

"Vanguard was primarily an art film program and City to City had become highly politicized in recent years and if I had to guess, obscure art films and municipal politics aren't particularly at the heart of the film industry and I think trimming these two programs is a positive way for TIFF to return to their roots primarily as a festival for business," he said. "TIFF might not be the most important festival in the world but it is the most important business festival, that's for sure."

The loss of Vanguard received a fair bit of attention on social media Thursday. And a number of people posted concerns about what the cuts at TIFF might signal about the festival. But filmmaker and former TIFF board member Barry Avrich says there's no reason to panic.

"I don't think it's a death knell, I don't think it's a major red flag that says, 'oh my God an organization's in trouble,'" Mr. Avrich said.

"Given the changes in the film and television industry that are going on, paramount changes that involve the complexity of how people are consuming film and television, it's impossible to think that film festivals would be immune to those changes and those challenges as well. I applaud TIFF for looking within and saying 'how do we best represent a changing demographic and a changing industry?' And I think it's smart at the end of the day."

As for the decision to no longer screen films in the Yorkville area, Mr. Lantos said it has become challenging for industry professionals to travel to those venues from the festival's epicentre further south. "Ultimately, it's the City of Toronto's fault for becoming a traffic nightmare," he said. "That's a Toronto problem, not TIFF's problem, but TIFF suffers as a result." The Hot Docs organization, which owns one of the theatres affected, declined to comment.

Simone Cromer, a film blogger from Michigan who has been attending TIFF every year since 2004, won't be there this year. A move to Los Angeles is the main reason – but she's looking forward to a breather from the festival chaos: the long lines, the skyrocketing prices, regular movie-goers fighting for the crummy seats.

"I do appreciate any type of organization wanting to further develop and expand so that more people can enjoy the art of cinema, but It's pretty much become Disneyfied, and maybe being a film snob I didn't appreciate that," she said. "The atmosphere has just become more Oscar-centric and the little films that film festivals were created [to] showcase, they're just being overshadowed by the films that have oh-the-gorgeous Emma Stone."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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