Read any piece of reportage about the Toronto International Film Festival and you're bound to hear that the annual Canadian cine-spectacular is the world's largest public film festival. Unlike other major annual film events, such as the industry-centric Sundance or Cannes, TIFF is primarily oriented toward the public and visiting attendees – who number in excess of 480,000 annually, according to the organization's internal accounting.
The festival has its problems – but problems can be solved. And the institutional, organizational and artistic future of TIFF may benefit from looking to a comparable public-oriented festival: the annual Berlinale.
Matching metrics of attendance, size and prestige proves tricky. But with 334,471 tickets sold for the 2017 instalment and a similar focus on a filmgoing mass known as "the public," the Berlinale stands as TIFF's most comparable annual film fête. Both festivals are also at a juncture. Just before the 2017 edition of TIFF, it was announced that long-time chief executive Piers Handling would be stepping down. Berlin's CEO and artistic director, Dieter Kosslick, is likewise retiring from his post. As with TIFF, many are pondering the artistic future of Berlin's annual film fest. But as it stands, the Berlinale still does a lot of things well – and TIFF could learn from it.
Program more deliberately
If there's one thing that hampers TIFF, it's the festival's sprawl. TIFF shows hundreds of movies across multiple programs, some of which seem barely distinguishable from one another. So it's no surprise that two of the festival's most popular programs – the genre-oriented Midnight Madness and the art/experimentally-minded Wavelengths – are also its tightest and most consistent, unfolding like mini-festivals within the festival. TIFF has seemed to acknowledge its bloat and trimmed some of the fat recently. Still, some of the specialness gets lost in the muddle. Can anyone tell the difference between a Gala and a Special Presentations screening, save for red carpet upholstery?
The Berlinale is even bigger than TIFF, with about 400 films to Toronto's 255 (in 2017). And yet, it feels more navigable. Despite some truly baffling designations, such as films designated as "Competition (Out of Competition)," Berlin's sections are clearly defined. There's the competition titles, the Forum titles (for indie and experimental work; one of the fest's most critically admired programs), a German cinema segment (Perspektive Deutsches Kino) and even, for 2018, a food-oriented program (Culinary Cinema). An attendee can focus on one program in its entirety, or pick and choose. These programs feel more clear-cut, which works to manage viewer expectations and streamline how to approach the festival.
Devise better branding
At the risk of sounding like some Don Draper-type waxing philosophic on the importance of advertising, a coherent brand can shape a major event in the public's mind. TIFF has no shortage of corporate branding, but it lacks its own brand. Sure, there's the diminutive orange "tiff" logo, but posing with the oversized cutout "tiff" sign parked on King West's "Festival Street" during TIFF feels vaguely idiotic, like smiling for a selfie with a General Electric banner.
The Berlinale, meanwhile, has branding nailed in the form of its mascot: the golden bear. At once a symbol of the festival and the city itself (and the model for the festival's major competition prize), the bear is everywhere in Berlin during the festival. It's on posters and bus ads and bumpers that precede screenings. It's even on shining lapel pins and stuffed animals sold at kiosks. Devising a comparable brand/mascot for TIFF that resonates with the city's culture on a whole feels a bit absurd. A loon? A goose? A raccoon peeking out of a raided organics bin? An anthropomorphic TIFF Bell Lightbox? These are the sorts of important decisions that advertising firms are paid millions of dollars to devise. The point is merely that they're worth devising.
Trim the celeb-baiting "premieres"
I didn't just fall out of the back of a Grolsch-branded Cadillac Escalade. I know that major cultural events require a certain razzle-dazzle quality to draw the public in. But there's often a cart-before-the-horse quality here. To take one example: Booking the abominable, utterly artless Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate to play at TIFF – let alone open the festival – in 2013, as a pretence to bait angular English hunk Benedict Cumberbatch is not only embarrassing, but irresponsible. Acting like such premieres are legitimate events in the cultural calendar is ludicrous.
Many premieres at the Berlinale, by contrast, do constitute legitimate events. Opening the 2018 edition with Wes Anderson's excellent Isle of Dogs, which bowed at the fest's mammoth Film Palast months before its theatrical release, felt like such an event. An early premiere like this works to drum up actual excitement. It also brings legitimate stars (Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, Anderson himself) to the festival. (And it's a fitting premiere for Berlin, a city where one is likely to stumble upon scruffy, smiling dogs in just about any bar or beverage room worth entering.) While TIFF is often touted as a festival that "kicks off" the awards-season race, it also scrapes uncomfortably against the immanence of awards season itself. Booking an Oscar-baiting studio prestige picture three weeks before a coast-to-coast theatrical engagement ultimately feels like a fleece, regardless of the stars it attracts.
Journey to the past
An exciting highlight of the 2018 Berlinale came in the most unassuming of places: a retrospective screening of Wim Wenders's 1987 Berlin city symphony Wings Of Desire. What might have been an opportunity to screen one of the quintessential Berlin films during the city's major film festival acquired an air of circumstance when Wenders, star Bruno Ganz and songwriter Nick Cave (who appears as himself in the film) arrived at the screening to premiere a new remastered version. Beyond the thrill of seeing Ganz in person, it proved instructive.
Film festivals shouldn't just be about right now. Cinema is an art with a lively and dense history, which demands constant exposure. TIFF makes a point of programming older films (in the form of the ongoing Canadian Open Vault series), but they rarely feel like major events.
Put fans first
One thing you immediately notice at the Berlinale is how well-organized it is from a public perspective (insert joke about German efficiency, etc.). Major premieres have clearly cordoned-off "Fan Areas," where shutterbugs and autograph hounds can fawn over stars. TIFF, despite its professed public focus, makes few such accommodations for fans. The downtown location of TIFF means stargazers are often packed up against guardrails and bus shelters, as the stars they came to see are hurried down narrow warrens of red carpet. Serious-minded cinephiles may sneer at the motivations of the squealing fans seeking signatures and selfies. But the reality is that they exist, they're a big part of TIFF and the festival could do more to make them feel welcome.
Dress to impress
You know how all those TIFF volunteers wear bright orange T-shirts and warm, friendly smiles? Well the Berlinale ticket-takers and ushers wear severe scowls, sharp red blazers and, when it's chilly, capes. That's the sort of pomp and circumstance a major film festival demands. If I wanted to see some schmo in a T-shirt and jeans, I'd look in a mirror.