Signage appears as guests attend day one of the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, in Toronto. With COVID-19 rattling the entire circuit, resulting in a trimmed Toronto International Film Festival slate that’s mostly online, the industry is looking for new ways to gain momentum for projects that in many cases have been finished remotely during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chris Pizzello, Invision

Signage appears as guests attend day one of the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, in Toronto. With COVID-19 rattling the entire circuit, resulting in a trimmed Toronto International Film Festival slate that’s mostly online, the industry is looking for new ways to gain momentum for projects that in many cases have been finished remotely during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chris Pizzello, Invision

Filmmakers relying on virtual world to build buzz at Toronto film festival

TIFF’s 45th edition runs Sept. 10-19 with a mix of digital and socially distanced physical screenings

For many filmmakers, a festival is often a crucial first step in the birth of a project or career.

It’s where they feel the first collective response to their projects, have dialogue on stages and red carpets, and shmooz with potential buyers, partners and distributors.

It’s also where critical reviews and word of mouth can help build buzz on the journey to other festivals, a wider release, and maybe even awards.

With COVID-19 rattling the entire circuit, resulting in a trimmed Toronto International Film Festival slate that’s mostly online, the industry is looking for new ways to build momentum.

While there’s no replacing the in-person experience, and the film industry is grappling with weak box offices both in cinemas and online, TIFF and talent are banking on virtual offerings and a smattering of indoor/outdoor screenings to recreate a semblance of a traditional festival rollout.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh, what a crappy time to be premiering films,’” says Toronto-based director Michelle Latimer, who will be debuting two projects at TIFF: the documentary “Inconvenient Indian” and the series “Trickster.”

“But then when I found out what TIFF was doing, I thought, ‘This is really smart.’ And I feel excited that the films are going to reach an audience in a different way.”

TIFF’s 45th edition runs Sept. 10-19 with a mix of digital and socially distanced physical screenings. The Venice festival running now through Sept. 12 is all in-person. Later this month, the New York and Vancouver film festivals will show films both online and in-person, while the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival will be online.

Festivals slated for earlier in the pandemic when lockdown was strict — Cannes, Tribeca, Telluride, SXSW — had to be either cancelled or shifted partially online. But many still announced their lineups, and Cannes held a virtual market for filmmakers to conduct business. Toronto’s Hot Docs festival went all online.

Screening films online or to a limited audience is better than bypassing the festival circuit entirely, says Laurie May, co-president of Canadian film distribution company Elevation Pictures, which has the star-studded “Ammonite,” “The Father” and “I Care a Lot” at TIFF.

“Otherwise those films would just get orphaned, and people have been working on them for years,” May says.

“I think it’s making the best of a bad situation and trying to keep everything moving forward,” she adds. ”And I don’t think this is the new world order. I think this is accommodating a difficult time and hoping to get back to normal.”

TIFF will screen films for the public across Canada on its online platform, Bell Digital Cinema, as well as at its downtown TIFF Bell Lightbox headquarters, two drive-ins and an open-air cinema.

As with a regular festival, all screenings have a limit on the number of tickets sold. Online films will be available to watch on different days, with a 24-hour viewing time limit.

COVID-19 safety protocols only allow up to 50 guests per indoor cinema, and patrons must wear masks unless seated in the theatre.

Those in the industry say containing the online audience will help films avoid early overexposure and issues including territorial rights before moving on to other festivals and wider release.

“You want to play other festivals, you don’t want to cannibalize your audience,” says Latimer. ”You’re going to have maybe a theatrical release, so we’re always strategizing so that we can optimize all of those screenings and premieres.”

At the same time, geoblocking to all of Canada widens the TIFF audience beyond Toronto.

“It enables people that were never able to come to TIFF to see and connect with us, so it’s a new democratic way to reach out to the public,” says Anne-Claire Lefaivre, director of marketing and audience development at the National Film Board of Canada, which co-produced “Inconvenient Indian.”

“We’re going to be able to do publicity and media buys to make people connect to the film outside Toronto, people in remote communities far away that can connect to the festival. So I think that’s one of the greatest changes that the online editions have.”

With a smaller slate of approximately 50 titles, it may also be easier to stand out this year, says Latimer.

“Especially for a documentary, it would be very easy to get lost in the flourish of TIFF. But with only (about) 50 features, I feel that documentaries will have a special place there, unlike any other year.”

But a lot of this is new territory and the industry is at a crossroads, wondering what type of release works best right now, says Lefaivre. While it seems “people are really hesitant going back in theatre,” she also wonders whether patrons are willing to pay as much for an online film as they would in-theatre.

The NFB recently had two “virtual cinema” releases in collaboration with some indie Canadian cinemas, and the box office ”results weren’t that spectacular,” Lefaivre says.

“Our box offices were like 10 per cent, 15 per cent of what we’d normally do in theatres.”

She’s happy TIFF is trying both in-person and online offerings, noting: ”It’s hard to have word of mouth when you’re watching a film online.”

It’s also hard to build the same level of excitement and fanfare that’s usually generated by splashy parties and galas.

For the most part, film talent won’t physically be at TIFF due to border restrictions. But many will be online in cast reunions, interactive talks, and Q-and-A’s — some of which will be available globally for free.

TIFF also has a slew of celebrity ambassadors this year, who will interact with audiences and industry delegates digitally. Many film talent have also recorded intros to their films.

British Columbia-based directors Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott, who will debut “The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” at TIFF, recorded their film intros in their living rooms. It was low-production value and their tripods kept falling down, they say with a laugh, but they feel TIFF “has done an amazing job at balancing the concern for safety and health.”

“From what I’ve seen in terms of their planning, they’ve provided a model for how a film festival can take place in these times,” says Bakan.

Latimer plans to do press by phone and zoom during TIFF, and attend in-person screenings for her projects at the Lightbox. The NFB hopes to livestream Q-and-A’s with Latimer from the Lightbox and elsewhere.

Stars will also be seen in the pre-recorded TIFF Tribute Awards, which will air Sept. 15 on CTV and stream through Variety. Honorees include “Ammonite” star Kate Winslet and “The Father” star Anthony Hopkins.

And while in-person jams are a no-go, TIFF-goers can whoop it up in their living rooms with a party through the Planet Africa 25 program, featuring a DJ-ed livestream from a secret location.

TIFF will also have an online industry conference from Sept. 10-14, so international delegates will still be able to conduct business.

International journalists will also be participating in the festival on its online platform.

May says she participated in the Cannes Film Festival’s virtual market in June — the first major virtual market since the pandemic started — ”and it was a very good business.”

“I met all the same suppliers, and bought a couple of films and watched a couple of films,” she says. ”Would I say I want to do that every year and skip the cost of flying to Cannes? Absolutely not. Because you lose the face-to-face. You lose the talking to other filmmakers. This is a creative industry. You can’t do it sitting at your home Zooming.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Arts and Entertainment

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An x-ray tech demonstrates the new equipment in use. (Photo Submitted)
New diagnostic equipment now operational at Sylvan Lake AACS

In August it was announced that Stephen and Jacqueline Wuori donated $850,000 to AACS

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which causes COVID-19, emerge from the surface of cells isolated from a patient in the U.S. and cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Alberta adds 463 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

The central zone has 818 active cases

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta identifies 573 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths on Saturday

There are currently 9,727 active cases of the virus in the province

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Red Fraggle, one of Jim Henson Company’s Fraggle Rock characers, is shown at Time To Play Holiday Show, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, in New York. The Jim Henson Company says production has officially started in Calgary on a reboot of the original 1980s children’s puppet series, which was filmed in Toronto.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Lennihan
‘Fraggle Rock’ children’s puppet series reboot starts production in Calgary

A spokesperson says the new series will stream on Apple TV plus

Black Press file photo
Wetaskiwin RCMP investigate fatal pedestrian collision

A 37-year-old man from Maskwacis has died in hospital as a result of his injuries.

A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Yukon’s Minister of Community Services, John Streiker, says he’s outraged that a couple from outside the territory travelled to a remote community this week and received doses of COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-POOL
Couple charged after travelling to Yukon to get COVID-19 vaccine

The maximum fine under the emergency measures act is $500, and up to six months in jail

Metis Nation of B.C. President Clara Morin Dal Col poses in this undated handout photo. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Metis Nation of B.C. *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Metis Nation of B.C. suspends president, citing ‘breach’ of policies, procedures

Vice-president Lissa Smith is stepping in to fill the position on an acting basis

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Payette shouldn’t get same benefits as other ex-governors general: O’Toole

Former governors general are entitled to a pension and also get a regular income paid to them for the rest of their lives

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Blackfalds RCMP investigate fatal collision

Preliminary investigation revealed a south bound pickup truck collided with an eastbound car

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

Most Read