Sure, it’s great that Toronto has so many film festivals. But how can they all survive?
Having a spontaneous conversation with a stranger is rarely part of the average Torontonian’s day. On the contrary, we excel at avoiding them. Yet the queues outside film-festival screenings bring something out of us; many local moviegoers actually regard line-up chatter as a cherished part of the festival ritual. As the 19th edition of Hot Docs gets underway, we can expect more impromptu exchanges of reviews, gossip and tips, as well as the occasional heated exchange over the precise location of the best seat in the newly renovated Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. (Due to the screen’s increased height and the much improved speaker system, the middle of the balcony’s first row is now the real sweet spot.)
It’s a ritual that never stops here. Arriving at the midpoint of the spring deluge, Hot Docs comes on the heels of Cinefranco, Images, ReelWorld, the Canadian Film Fest, and TIFF Kids, and is followed in turn by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Next Wave, Inside Out, and the Worldwide Short Film Festival. The summer’s spate of blockbusters may thin out the schedule, but it returns in full force in September. The city’s cultural calendar boasts between 60 and 70 film festivals, the majority of them being well-established events taking place over several days in multiple venues. Many are among the largest (if not the largest) events of their kind in the country, the continent, or—in the case of the Toronto International Film Festival—the world.
TIFF may bring out both stars and stargazers to our streets, but the city’s festival mania extends far beyond those 11 days in September. Nearly every week, moviegoers support a bewildering array of smaller festivals that cater to every possible cultural or interest group. We’ve got fests of movies about the environment, sports and breast cancer. We’ve got fests of new films from Portugal, Poland and Nepal. And thanks to the productivity of Estonian documentary filmmakers, we need a fest for them, too.
“It’s amazing,” says Chris McDonald, Hot Docs’ executive director. “I think there are more festivals in Toronto than anywhere else.”
That may very well be true. According to stats from local film offices, New York and Chicago top out at three or four dozen each. In Toronto, conditions are so fertile that newcomers are always popping up and many veterans are breaking attendance records. Some events, like the Canadian Film Festival, have even returned from the dead. Fests have literally changed our year-round movie landscape, begetting their own ritzy venues in the forms of TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. This activity has occurred despite the economic downturn, an overall decline in North American movie attendance, and the digital age’s ever-expanding roster of home-entertainment options.
So why do we love fests so much? One reason is common to viewers who flock to similar events from Abu Dhabi to Zanzibar: the chance to see movies long before they arrive in theatres for commercial runs, as well as countless others that may never play on a big screen again.
Yet TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey believes that our love affair with film festivals stems from something deeper than cinephilia—our conflicting feelings of “anxiety and desire” over the prospect of living alongside so many other cultures. “I do feel that Toronto is a very segregated and Balkanized city,” he says. “Whether your boundary is the white hipster community in downtown Toronto or the Punjabi community in Brampton, most of our lives are spent in those circles. Festivals break us out of those boundaries.”
Bailey also cites TIFF’s massive growth in the last 36 years as a major factor behind the proliferation of its smaller counterparts. He notes how many of the events that began in the early ’90s were created to showcase categories that their founders felt were inadequately served by what was then the Festival of Festivals (e.g., Hot Docs for documentaries, Images for experimental film and video, Inside Out for work by LGBT filmmakers). The fact that TIFF will never be all things to all people continues to produce this side effect. “As much as we think we can do everything, we can’t,” says Bailey with a laugh.
Another crucial element is the pool of programming and administration talent created by TIFF over the years. As Bailey says, “People who worked at TIFF go start new festivals or work at other festivals before coming here. It’s a snowball effect.”
Such expertise has proven valuable to the biggest local fests (TIFF, Hot Docs) as they struggle with the question of how to grow into world-class events without alienating longtime patrons who may be put off by the problems that come with volume, like cumbersome ticket-buying processes. But there are plenty of different concerns for the smaller festivals hoping to survive in this crowded calendar. Whereas Hot Docs operates on a budget of $4 million and TIFF’s annual budget tops $30 million, Cinefranco gets by on less than $250,000. Like the majority of Canadian fests, Cinefranco gets support from agencies like Canadian Heritage and Telefilm Canada. But the unreliability of public arts funding from year to year (especially with Harper’s Tories in office) makes it necessary to find private sources. “It’s like pulling teeth,” says founder Marcelle Lean of the constant struggle to finance her 15-year-old festival. Lean also cites competition between fests for new titles and some film distributors’ reluctance to temporarily part with their wares as threats to Cinefranco’s continued longevity.
The Canadian Film Festival’s Bern Euler saw his fest die once already. Despite his event’s all-Canadian programming and growth during its original run from 2004 to 2008, he was unable to attract any public funding. “Then, when the economy went downhill, the first thing that dried up was corporation sponsorship budgets,” he says. “I thought, ‘I can’t bankroll this myself. I’m not a rich dude.’” Euler restarted the festival this year, again without public financing.
With companies like Scotiabank and Rogers in its corner, Hot Docs doesn’t lack for eager corporate partners. But those relationships sometimes present their own issues, too. “We had an ad for an Escalade running before a film on Ralph Nader once,” says Chris McDonald. “We’ve done a couple of those boo-boos.”
The availability, cost, and quality of venues are further concerns for local fests, especially as the smaller players grapple with the ramifications of renting screens in buildings that already brandish the big boys’ brands. For all of the advantages of using the lavish facilities of TIFF Bell Lightbox, Lean wasn’t able to attain the degree of visibility she wanted for Cinefranco during the fest’s two years there. “We thought we were a little bit swallowed up by that big machine,” she says.
With TIFF promoting its own series and fests in the Lightbox alongside a stream of visiting events (Hot Docs, the TJFF and Inside Out are all there in the next few weeks), some moviegoers may be feeling a case of overkill. The special one-off screenings that used to be the sole domain of festivals have proliferated beyond the movie mecca at King and John. Faced with declining attendance numbers, local cinemas have moved far beyond the traditional focus on first- or second-run titles, whether it’s theme nights at the Revue and the Projection Booth or Cineplex’s smattering of golden oldies, opera productions in HD and Kevin Smith lectures.
That goes to show how much the festival phenomenon has influenced our notions of a night (or afternoon) at the movies. But since a big chunk of that available audience has come to expect that value-added fest-style experience every time they buy a ticket, getting them off the sofa, away from Netflix and into theatres for less buzz-worthy occasions is an ever more daunting challenge. All too aware of TIFF’s much-publicized struggles to get punters into the Lightbox on a regular basis, Hot Docs is hoping that the average non-fest screening at the Bloor will attract 35 people, a target that is slim but realistic.
There’s the grim possibility that Toronto’s cinematic ecosystem has grown so overcrowded, it could be rapidly depleting the things most needed to sustain it: stable funding sources, decent venues, movies worth seeing and, most important of all, patrons who don’t mind a line-up.
Hot Docs runs from April 26-May 6. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs from May 3-13.