“If there is anything the Festival of Festivals should avoid becoming, it is the Cannes Film Festival.” Jay Scott, film critic, The Globe and Mail, 1981
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), now in its 37th year, is one of the world’s great film festivals without question. Second only to the Cannes Film Festival in terms of audience/press attendance, prestige and number of films screened; yet, since it opened its impressive five-story digs – known by its corporate name, the Bell Lightbox – in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district in 2010, many questions remain unanswered. The big one being: how do you fill the 1,400 seats in the five state-of-the-art cinemas beyond the festival’s 11-day run during the first two weeks of September?
Controversy at TIFF
Prior to the release of TIFF’s 2011 annual report in April of this year, The Globe and Mail ran a lengthy article by James Adams pointing out what knowledgeable industry insiders have suspected all along.“If one subtracts whatever distribution fee is involved,” wrote Adams, “[films screened at the Lightbox] contributed, in net terms, between $600,000 and $700,000 to TIFF’s total revenue of $32.1-million in 2011. Those numbers are seriously problematic if the Lightbox is looking to the box office [for revenue]… it’s one thing to run a sharply defined 11-day event carried on the celebrity-stoked momentum of an illustrious history, quite another to make a go of a new, expensive building, requiring a steady influx of customers, 365 days of year.” In other words, how do you pay the light bills with an empty 500-seat theatre?
Bill Marshall, one of the co-founders of the festival, was so upset with The Globe article he wrote an open letter to the current festival board of directors that was published in the National Post. As expected, he rallied to the defense of TIFF and its 150 or so permanent employees who were understandably upset and nervous about their jobs. Marshall dismissed Adams as a “local scribbler” and “chippy journalist,” and the press in general as “thumbsuckers who will be back. It is their job.”
A World Class Festival
While I have no opinion on Mr. Adams qualities as a writer one way or another, the contempt shown in Marshall’s response is part of what is seriously wrong with TIFF these days. It openly displays a superior attitude – TIFF knows best – that is dismissive of any serious criticism of the corporate beast it’s become.
In the beginning (1976), the festival wisely courted the press and provided a hotel suite for the thirsty and hungry scribes to indulge themselves from the early hours of the morning to late at night. Accordingly, it received rave reviews and a loyal following among the local press corps. During the mid-to-late 1990s, things changed, and the press suite was no more. The rave reviews, however, attracted the attention of Hollywood heavyweights, who saw the festival as the perfect place – and perfect timing, coming as it does at the end of the summer – to launch their fall and winter products while benefiting from the free attendant world press. Invariably came the velvet ropes separating the “stars” from the gawkers, the red-carpet vanity walks and overbearing paparazzi. It had become, in other words, “world class,” losing the informal charm of its earlier, more relaxed years.
Today TIFF is an important launching pad for films with Oscar potential, and an important source of revenue for the City of Toronto, making it too big to fail. Typically, the major films are accompanied by huge promotional budgets to throw lavish parties and secure red-carpet treatment for its stars, who are sequestered in hotel rooms for interviews with major U.S. entertainment shows. Local media types are pretty much excluded.
Sadly, when Marshall gives the local press the proverbial middle finger, he stands in good stead with Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford, who is known to give the finger to his constituents from time to time. Some sage advice from Mark Twain for Mr. Marshall, as mayor Ford has learnt to his peril in his ongoing feud with the Toronto Star: you don’t pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.