The Toronto Film Festival is set for a return to glitzy premieres with Hollywood stars and red carpets after being forced by the pandemic to stage low-key streaming and limited in-person events for two years.
As Cameron Bailey gets set to welcome Hollywood, other international filmmakers, media and industry execs back to Toronto, the TIFF CEO reveals his ambitions for the 47th edition of the festival to run from Sept. 8 to 18.
“This will feel like the festivals we were used to before the pandemic, where it’s the gathering, it’s the epicenter of the film world for 10 days,” Bailey tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Toronto will also return to a balancing act of programming international art house auteurs, while also offering Hollywood studios and streamers its most prized first weekend movie launch slots at Roy Thomson Hall and the Princess of Wales Theatre, red-carpet mania and glitzy parties.
Before Netflix’s The Swimmers opens Toronto on Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall, Bailey talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his festival returning to its pre-COVID 19 crisis roots with Hollywood stars on red carpets and fans cheering outdoors and in theaters.
This is the first Toronto Film Festival to be staged in person since the pandemic started. What can fest attendees from the U.S. and elsewhere internationally expect?
The good news is the public health situation has been improving for the last several months. What that means is we can be back in person in our largest venues, 100 percent capacity for those theaters. We’re creating Festival Street on King Street for the first four days of the festival. We’re expecting thousands of visitors to take in all the different things that will be going on. We’ll have outdoor screenings, live music on our stages. And we’re expecting the industry and the filmmakers and the press to be back in force in Toronto. We missed them for the last couple years.
Is there a sense that, for the 2022 edition to succeed in-person, everyone in the industry has to come to Toronto and play their collective part?
From what we’ve seen so far, we’re expecting about 1,600 journalists, over 3,000 industry delegates, many of them coming from outside the country. The film teams from all of the films are planning to come here. So this will feel like the festivals we were used to before the pandemic, where it’s the gathering, it’s the epicenter of the film world for 10 days.
It’s a relief for you to not have to plan for two scenarios — one a possible in-person event and the other online — as you did during the last two years, and to have certainty to plan for a physical 47th edition?
The biggest relief is knowing the experience we’ve offered for over four decades is coming back as people know it. That’s not just being in cinemas or online, but having that immediate reaction from a full theater of movie lovers to films that nobody has seen in public for the first time. They will be responding, collectively. And that’s been hard to do in the same way over the last two years.
For you personally, however, to not spend your time deciding whether the festival will be in person or online, that must be a relief?
The pandemic years in 2020 and 2021 were especially challenging, not just a matter of [the festival being] in-person or not-in-person but just knowing the usual sources of revenue were incredibly challenged. We got through with significant support from the government and ongoing support from our partners that wasn’t always guaranteed. We understand that things never stand still. But yes, I’m very glad to know the experience of letting the lights go down and being surrounded by hundreds of strangers has returned. That’s amazing, and I’m glad to be bringing that back.
Many indie films did poorly during the last two years when Toronto and other major festivals went online. Will launching indie titles this year in theaters, before live audiences, help films find a life after the festival?
Our festival does at least two important things for films and filmmakers. One of them is it amplifies awareness. You come to our festival and, from the time we announce the title to the screening that happens here and the audience responds and the reviews come out, the industry is taking a look at those films. You’re building awareness for a film in a competitive landscape. You really want the film you make to stand out and our festival can do that very well. The other thing is if you’re bringing a film here without distribution, whether that’s North America or other territories, this is a great place to do that as well.
And that’s just harder to do online.
For many films and the people who hold their rights, it’s very early to put your film online in front of audiences at home at its world premiere. Usually that comes weeks or months down the line, after a film has had opportunities to be seen in theaters. During the two years of the pandemic, many filmmakers and film companies made exceptions. But those were temporary decisions. Now that we can show movies in theaters again, the vast majority of films (at TIFF) will be screened theatrically. And then we have a small sampling of about two dozen films that will be available for home viewing online as well.
As Toronto returns in-person, you will also have red carpets. Can we expect screaming fans wanting selfies with their favorite stars?
I sure hope so. If fans are what they have always been when their favorites come onto the red carpet, they’re going to scream. Yeah, we’re expecting that red carpet excitement like we’ve had before.
There’s been concern expressed for the safety of visiting stars at TIFF amid the pandemic as many will return quickly to film sets or go to upcoming projects. Are you taking measures to ensure safety on red carpets and in festival venues?
You’ll probably know from following the film production world that they’ve had two years to put in place thorough protocols in terms of public health and protecting the actors and others on a film set. So that’s all in place. In addition to that, TIFF staff will be masked during the festival when they are working. We also have a testing protocol in place, especially for staff who are really front facing, who will be engaging with the film guests that come here. And we’ve always worked with the representatives of the talent that’s coming to town and public health authorities here to make sure that everything we do is done safely.
You have Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiography The Fabelmans debuting in Toronto. Is that a big occasion for TIFF?
Absolutely it is. We’re excited by the whole lineup, but we’ve never had Steven Spielberg come present a film here, certainly not to launch one in our 47 year history. This is a big thing for us. He is one of the most talented and groundbreaking and accomplished filmmakers that we’ve ever seen. And he’s making and launching a film in Toronto that’s different from everything he’s done before. He’s never made a film that’s so personal, so powerfully dramatic about something he knows well — his own upbringing and his family life. He’s taking risks in telling this story, but it’s beautifully told. I found it incredibly moving. And if you know Steven Spielberg’s movies, and who doesn’t, it will be especially powerful as you will see where some of the later work came from, from the young Spielberg and the teenage Spielberg. You see influences that went into the blockbusters he made later.
Do you have any films by Russian filmmakers this year?
I don’t believe there’s any films from Russia itself, produced in Russia, funded by Russia. There may be filmmakers with some Russian background who were working in other countries. Initially, when the invasion by the Russian military started into Ukraine, we did say we would suspend activities with Russian state funded institutions, which we have done. But we would not suspend our engagement with filmmakers who happen to be Russian. We just didn’t happen to find any films that we were inviting from filmmakers based in Russia this year. That’s not so unusual. We don’t have Russian films every year. But this was a year where I imagine for many reasons there just weren’t many films available.
As the pandemic eases, Hollywood blockbusters are returned in strength to the multiplex. But older audiences have taken longer to return to theaters. Is your 2022 edition a test for whether indie cinema can bounce back in theaters for older audiences?
It’s great that the summer blockbuster season, in terms of commercial movies, has been as successful as it’s been generally, that we’ve had some real hits come out this summer. A lot of movie-goers are looking forward to the fall season because it’s a different kind of film that tends to launch there. To have the premiere of The Woman King, for instance, or the Weird Al Yankovic movie, at the other end of the spectrum, they’ll go from our festival into theatrical release. That’s exciting as it gives audiences a new slate of films to watch. There’s a wealth of great movies that are more art-house or awards-worthy movies that will be coming out in the coming months. So there’s lots to look forward to.
Here’s to hoping for screaming film fans.
Thank you. If I have to start that, I will.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.