Toronto Film Festival Organizers on the 2021 Lineup and Moving Forward With In-Person Premieres During COVID

The Toronto International Film Festival is ready to welcome audiences back to in-person premieres and screenings after COVID-19 forced the 2020 edition of the annual celebration of movies to unfold largely online.

This week, TIFF announced that while it still plans to show films virtually for press and film executives who can’t travel to Canada because of travel restrictions or other concerns, it will return to showcasing movies at some of its most storied venues. Once again, the Princess of Wales Theatre, TIFF Bell Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, and other Toronto theaters will host glitzy premieres, giving audiences the first glimpse at many of the films that are expected to dominate awards season.

TIFF also took the unusual step of announcing a few of the films that will screen in competition. They include Kenneth Branagh’s coming-of-age drama “Belfast”, Edgar Wright’s horror-thriller “Last Night In Soho,” and Alison Klayman’s Alanis Morissette documentary “Jagged.” Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” will get a special Imax screening, but will not be eligible for awards. The festival plans to reveal more selections by the third week of July and should have most of its slate locked down by the middle of August. Typically, TIFF unveils nearly all of its lineup at once, but the festival was eager to show the film business that it was moving forward with an in-person event at a time when some executives and media had been skeptical that would be possible — Canada has lagged behind the U.S. and some European countries when it came to distributing vaccines.

Variety spoke with Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head, and Joana Vicente, TIFF’s executive director and co-head, about the public health situation in Canada, the safety precautions they are taking to keep audiences healthy, and the 2021 lineup.

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Why did you decide to announce that these 13 films were going to screen at the festival instead of waiting to reveal the bulk of your competition slate?

Cameron Bailey: We’ve been in a pandemic for a year and a half, and people wanted to know what the landscape looked like. This is an indication, and there’s lots more to come.

Joana Vicente: There’s been so much uncertainty surrounding the situation in Canada, which has not been great. But all of a sudden things are getting much better. The vaccination rate is really accelerating. Seventy five percent of people in Toronto have received their first dose and 25% have their second dose, so we’re really feeling very confident that we can have an in-person festival. We’ll be bringing some of our biggest venues back, but also continuing to have drive-ins and outdoor screenings and we’ll have a digital platform.

In your press release announcing these films, you shared some data about the vaccination rates in Canada, as well as quotes from public health experts. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. I’d been under the impression that the situation was dire in Canada when it came to vaccinations.

Vicente: That’s why we did this. Two months ago the situation was not as positive and we were looking at different scenarios and thinking a lot about whether we could bring different venues back. Now we’re totally confident. It just feels that all the indicators are pointing in the right direction. We felt it was important to come out and let the world know because people can create their own stories if we don’t tell our story.

Given that the public health situation has improved, do you think that there will be a robust international presence at the festival or will travel restrictions still be in place, making that impossible?

Vicente: It’s hard to say. There’s pressure for the border between the U.S. and Canada to reopen. In terms of Europe or other countries, it will depend on what kind of restrictions are in place and when people get vaccinated. Canadians who have been vaccinated are now able to come back to the country without quarantining. That’s a great indicator that eventually, foreign travelers who are vaccinated will not have to quarantine. But a lot of things are still in play, so that’s why we thought it was important to keep our digital platform for press and industry who aren’t able to travel to Toronto. It’s a model we will keep in the future. Not everyone can afford to travel here, and this allows people to participate and engage in the festival.

Bailey: Part of it will be determined by government regulations, but part of it will be determined by individual choices. Even if people can travel here, will they? Some people have discovered the pleasure of spending more time with their family or achieving a better work/life balance, so we don’t know what the landscape is going to look like not just for us, but for the industry generally. There have been a lot of people who have been road warriors for years and who have spent half the year traveling to festivals and markets. They may evolve. Now that we have digital tools and we can conduct business online and review films online, a kind of hybrid approach may remain.

One staple of TIFF is the red carpet premieres and parties. Will those happen? Will filmmakers and stars still be on hand to introduce their movies?

Vicente: We are hoping to welcome talent in Toronto. I’m not sure parties are in the cards. But we think talent will be able to be celebrated and will get a chance to interact with audiences while showing their films.

What have you learned from the experience of overseeing a festival during a pandemic?

Bailey: The genie is out of the bottle, so once we discovered that it was possible to do things virtually, it meant that we were not going to go back to the way things were before. There is a basic human desire to gather together and socialize in person and see how someone is reacting to a movie or a film pitch or whatever you came to a festival to do. That doesn’t go away, but now there are all these different tools as well. If every year you are traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, you might scale that back or you might make different choices and send some people to one festival and others to another. But we also know how strong the desire, that longing really, is to gather together and be in a movie theater and gauge the reaction of a crowd to a film. Nothing replaces that. We watched so many movies at home during lockdown and it’s not the same as going into a movie theater. We now know that more than ever. Festivals do that better than any environment because there’s the excitement of discovering a movie together for the first time.

COVID also resulted in a slowdown in production. Has that limited the number of films that are available for TIIF to screen?

Bailey: It really hasn’t. We saw no decline and, in fact, saw a slight increase in the number of submissions and the quality is strong. We had about 7,000 films come in the door. These were features and short films from all over the world, and that number is as high as we’ve ever had in the past. Many of those films were made during the pandemic, which is really extraordinary. These filmmakers wanted to get their work done and they were able to find a way.

There have also been a number of new streaming platforms that have launched in recent months. Services such as HBO Max and Disney Plus and Paramount Plus are making original movies. Does that mean there are more films than ever looking to debut at festivals?

Bailey: I’m not sure it’s necessarily growing the pie, but it’s interesting to see films coming from different sources. The reason companies bring films to us, whether they’re a traditional theatrical distributor or a streaming platform, is the same. They want to raise awareness of the film and they want to see the reaction of a Toronto audience, which has been such a bellwether for so many years. They want to show the movies to journalists and the industry. None of that changes whether it’s a new streaming platform or a more conventional distributor. We are glad to have the resources that these new streaming platforms are devoting to these movies. It means there are more opportunities for movies to be made. Some of these companies have been incredibly supportive of the filmmakers who have made their careers in theatrical exhibition. Antoine Fuqua has his new movie “The Guilty” for Netflix, but he’s made most of his movies for traditional distributors. His filmmaking craft is at as high a level as ever. It’s made for a streaming platform, but it’s cinema by any measure.

Will you require people to provide proof of vaccination in order to attend in-person events? Will there be social distancing at screenings and other safety measures?

Vicente: We are looking at safety protocols like social distancing, masks, no concessions, no physical tickets. Right now, we are not looking at having people provide proof of vaccination, but as things evolve and things become more normal in Canada that may change. We know that in the U.S. festivals and sports are requiring proof of vaccine. We have to stay nimble and see how things evolve and we might need to adapt and adopt that.

What are you most looking forward to about the 2021 edition of TIFF?

Bailey: Maybe this is the movie geek in me, but I’m very excited to be presenting “Dune” at the very first Imax cinema ever built, the Cinesphere. It’s a big moment for us because Denis Villeneuve is really one of us. We’ve been presenting his films since the beginning. To see his success globally has been magnificent and it’s something we take pride in as part of the Canadian film industry. And he’s presenting his latest film in a Canadian technology — Imax was invented here. That’s a big moment. It touches film history for us in a nice way.

Vicente: The thing I’m most excited about is having filmmakers back. That was the thing we missed last year. It’s not the same thing to introduce your films and not be there as the audience watches them.

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