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Pandemic-Impacted Toronto Film Festival Morphs Into Two Events for 2021

The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter

A scaled-down 2021 Toronto Film Festival has dramatically turned into two events: a festival for directors and producers over the moon for finally screening their latest movies in front of a live audience, and a stay-at-home event for film buyers and sellers looking to avoid crowds and the delta variant.

“I was afraid they were going to shut down the border and the [Toronto] festival wasn’t happening, or only virtually,” Manny Perez, the Dominican American writer and actor set to host a socially distanced world premiere at Bell Lightbox for his La Soga 2 on Friday night, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

“I produced and wrote and directed it. I wanted to be there, so I’ve been praying, ‘Please, open the border.’ Even if we have two people in the audience, I’ll be a happy camper,” Perez adds as he comes full circle in Toronto after La Soga, the original film he wrote and starred in, bowed at TIFF in 2009.

As TIFF organizers look to replicate the informal physical film market online that normally takes place each September in Toronto, dealmakers have warmed to the virtual format for the second year running. Arianna Bocco, president of IFC Films , who has just attended Telluride ’s 2021 festival in-person, decided along with her team to do business in Toronto virtually.

“We do have films playing in the [Toronto] festival, but it seems like most of the industry is not attending this year. So it feels like it’s probably a festival that we can attend virtually,” Bocco tells THR . Efficiency is also a factor. TIFF’s virtual format means industry players can better schedule their time to hold meetings and screen movies in the festival’s lineup, without having to rush around downtown Toronto, line up at theaters and conference events or avoid distractions like crowded parties and restaurants.

“Telluride is a different experience. It’s a small town, you walk out onto the main street and see 20 people. In the big city, it’s more spread out. One festival is not better than the other. It’s just different experiences. And without the sense of community that’s coming there [Toronto], we’re happy to participate virtually,” Bocco insists.

For film directors and producers screening their latest movies at TIFF, on the other hand, that sense of community while watching a movie on the big screen — long denied to many during the pandemic — is just what they’re eager to embrace at Toronto’s 46th edition.

“It’s so Toronto, to be watching (sort of) outside, at Ontario Place, a former amusement park. It’s by the water, by Lake Ontario. It has the potential to be incredibly magical,” says Fab Filippo, co-creator along with Bilal Baig of the CBC/HBO Max trans comedy Sort Of, which will have its premiere on Sept. 15 at the Ontario Place West Island open air cinema, as fest-goers sit in Muskoka chairs under the stars to comply with pandemic-era restrictions.

Toronto festival audiences have long been considered a reliable barometer of potential award season success after movies play at TIFF, often after world bows at Venice or Telluride. But it’s the aggressive Delta variant of COVID-19 that has given the Toronto fest and its 2021 contingent of filmmakers and industry execs a gut punch, and just as film-lovers were getting back into the swing of cinema-going.

“It’s my backyard and most of my friends and colleagues are not coming. There’s very few attendees,” says Berry Meyerowitz, the Toronto-based co-president of Quiver Distribution, as industry execs either choose to avoid the bother and expense of traveling to Toronto amid uncertain border requirements, or a shrunken lineup for TIFF this year that promises far fewer acquisition and discovery titles.

“That’s why we come. We love Toronto and it’s obviously a great audience film festival. But if there aren’t a lot of movies to screen, people aren’t going to spend the time and money to come here,” he adds. And while Meyerowitz and other industry players have got used to virtual calls, he adds film buyers will miss out on witnessing and weighing the commercial value of Toronto festival audience reactions first-hand.

“While sitting at home on Zoom is more efficient and affordable for your time, and you can talk about a film internally with your team, you don’t get the audience reaction, you don’t get to hear the director talk about the genesis of a film. It’s very isolating,” Meyerowitz says.

And it’s just that communal experience in Toronto, where a director gets the opportunity for a defining career moment — whether it’s their debut feature or their tenth — that filmmakers are so enthusiastic to experience and enjoy during the festival’s ten day run to Sept. 18.

Indie producer Rachel Shane will see her latest film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye , the Tammy Faye Bakker biopic from Fox Searchlight that stars Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, have a world premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Sunday night. “This will be a highlight of my career, to be able to see this movie in my own country, in a theater, after skipping Toronto last year,” Winnipeg, Manitoba-born Shane tells THR .

A veteran TIFF-goer, Shane was last in Toronto in 2019 for the international premiere of Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn . “It will be an incredibly special moment and we are hoping audiences see what Jessica has done, and Andrew and [director] Michael Showalter,” she adds ahead of Searchlight releasing The Eyes of Tammy Faye in theaters on Sept. 17.

Other directors, having debuted their films elsewhere because of the pandemic, will get a chance to view their latest work alongside a live audience for the first time in Toronto. Jockey helmer Clint Bentley saw his feature directorial debut earn Sundance ’s U.S. Dramatic Special Jury award for star Clifton Collins Jr.’s acting, ahead of the film getting a theatrical release via Sony Pictures Classics from Dec. 29.

But Bentley never made it to Sundance, where Jockey screened virtually, and he’ll finally get to see the film in front of a live audience with a Scotiabank Theatre Toronto screening on Sept. 9. “I’m very excited. If anything, 2020 has made us all as filmmakers super excited to get back together and watch movies together,” explains Bentley, who waited anxiously to learn whether Toronto could and would do in-person screenings safely.

“I haven’t seen the movie with an audience yet. My biggest audience was in Sundance when I had a few friends over to watch it in the attic. So I’m excited,” he added.

But British writer-director Clio Barnard, who was last in Toronto with the 2017 rural noir Dark River , won’t be at TIFF for the North American premiere of her working class love story Ali & Ava , which has an in-person screening at Scotiabank Theatre on Sunday night.

In fact, she will wait until the London Film Festival for the first opportunity to present her latest film to a live audience as she appeared remotely for the world premiere in Cannes for Ali & Ava as part of the Director’s Fortnight. “I couldn’t be there [Cannes] either, which was maddening and upsetting… It’s an amazing experience to be in an audience with your film, especially for the first time, or anytime really. I’ve missed that and we probably all have, that cinema experience,” Barnard tells THR .

TIFF organizers putting on their second hybrid festival with both physical and digital features has allowed technological ingenuity and adaptation with the 46th edition welcomed by some invited filmmakers.

Neptune Frost co-directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman will see their Afro-sonic sci-fi musical, which was shot in Rwanda, super-sized for a North American premiere at the Cinesphere Imax Theatre on the city’s waterfront, which has a giant geodesic dome and a screen that measures 80 feet by 60 feet.

Says Williams: “We always wanted to see this film on the large screen. In fact, we constructed a dome as we built a village out of recycled computer parts before we shot the film in Rwanda. So there’s an excitement at our end to have a North American premiere under a dome.”

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