Jul 09, 2023

What’s TIFF without the stars? Inside the film festival’s red

Illustration by Drew Shannon

A little more than a year ago, Toronto’s King Street West resembled the parking lot of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre just after the Academy Awards let out.

In one corner was Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae, beaming their perfect smiles in front of a phalanx of cameras. Across the street was Jennifer Lawrence and Oprah Winfrey. Steven Spielberg was rounding the bend alongside Michelle Williams. And every so often a soul-rattling chorus of shrieks would erupt from fans who were certain they had just spotted Taylor Swift and/or Harry Styles.

For any movie-lover, booster of the city, or looky-loo who can appreciate the blood-rushing thrill of communal gawking, the opening weekend of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival was a joyous thing to behold – an extended welcome-back block party for a Canadian cultural institution that survived the existential threat of the pandemic.

But if last year’s festival was a traffic jam of glitz and glamour, TIFF 2023 threatens to be more of a polite drive-by.

Between the two major strikes tearing Hollywood apart, the tectonic changes rocking the global film landscape, and the myriad pressure points needling tensions inside TIFF’s own Lightbox headquarters, this year’s festival itself might contain more drama than the 200-plus films it is set to screen. Not that TIFF’s leaders are ready to call this a disaster flick – it’s closer to a nail-biting thriller.

“It wasn’t until just before the strike was called that we got into the serious daily planning, similar to when the COVID shutdowns happened: meeting every day, all departments, and thinking through every single element of how a strike might affect the festival,” says TIFF’s chief executive Cameron Bailey. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls and e-mails were made. But it was ... a lot.”

It is a week and a half before the 48th annual edition of TIFF kicks off, and Bailey and chief programming officer Anita Lee are taking a tightly scheduled faux-break inside the Lightbox’s new third-floor cafe-bar, Varda. Named after the iconic French New Wave filmmaker, what was once a forgotten nook called the Bell Blue Room Members Lounge is now a warmly elegant space, intended to be an escape from the relentless chaos of festival goings-on. Which makes it an appropriate place to meet, given that Bailey and Lee are required to be anchors of calm in what has turned out to be an intensely tumultuous season.

With the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) still on strike – and with no resolution in sight by the time TIFF opens Sept. 7 – the Toronto festival faces a severe drain of the red-carpet talent that has become so crucial to its brand.

Directors can still attend, given that the Directors Guild of America (DGA) secured a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) earlier this summer. And plenty of international stars are on their way, not governed by American unions. But only a select few of the marquee-level Hollywood celebrities who TIFF audiences typically covet are set to make the trek north, and that’s only thanks to a quirk of labour relations that might confuse the casual moviegoer: interim waivers.

If actors are starring in films made by independent producers who are not members of the AMPTP, they can receive permission from SAG-AFTRA allowing production and promotional duties to continue. Practically, this means that Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson, stars of TIFF selection Daddio, can walk Toronto’s red carpets. As can Colman Domingo, who leads the waiver-receiving drama Sing Sing, and Maya Hawke, star of her father Ethan’s new directorial effort Wildcat. Jessica Chastain (Memory) and Nicolas Cage (Dream Scenario) are also reportedly close to confirming.

But the optics of appearing is another thing entirely. Betting that average audiences have a clear understanding that SAG-AFTRA waivers benefit the union and are not, in fact, acts of scabbing is a sizable gamble for any star to take. Exactly which actors might risk becoming the subject of a misleading headline or a dishonest social-media post remains, as of this writing, a waiting game.

“If the films have interim agreements, most of the talent will be here, though some will make personal decisions to not come,” says Bailey. “In a way, this has been good in bringing us closer to the actors themselves. When we usually put on the festival, we just expect that people from the films will come. This time we had to work out what people’s comfort levels are directly.”

With the stars of TIFF’s big studio selections definitely sitting this festival out – there will be no Michael Fassbender (Searchlight Pictures’ Next Goal Wins), Emily Blunt (Netflix’s Pain Hustlers) or Seth Rogen (Sony’s Dumb Money) – what has TIFF done to ensure its star quotient is stable, and thus its ticket sales strong?

A person walks past the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Bell Lightbox in Toronto's Entertainment District of Toronto, on Aug. 17.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Bailey and Lee outline three red-carpet workarounds. First, the fest has become the unofficial home for actors who really want to direct. Michael Keaton (Knox Goes Away), Chris Pine (Poolman), Anna Kendrick (Woman of the Hour), Viggo Mortensen (The Dead Don’t Hurt), Ethan Hawke (Wildcat), Finn Wolfhard (Hell of a Summer), Patricia Arquette (Gonzo Girl), and Kristin Scott Thomas (North Star) are all able to attend because they’re promoting directorial efforts (though in the cases of Keaton, Pine and Kendrick, they are also the leads of their own films – a wrinkle that may or may not be ironed out by next week).

Second, the festival has stacked its lineup with directors who are as big names as actors, including Taika Waititi, Guillermo del Toro, Pedro Almodóvar and Spike Lee (the latter two of whom will be headlining TIFF’s annual Tribute Awards, a fundraiser originally designed to draw deep-pocketed attendees by promising them the chance to rub elbows with the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Brendan Fraser).

Finally, there are a handful of documentaries on offer featuring famous musicians: Paul Simon, David Byrne and the Talking Heads, members of Nickelback, and Lil Nas X, who are all set to appear in Toronto.

“It’s been a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity on a daily basis,” adds Anita Lee, “but I think there are going to be a lot of people in town who audiences are going to be excited about.”

These are all smart, necessary plays. Even if some were unintentionally prescient – several of the films from those actors-turned-directors were festival locks long before anyone started to worry about an actors’ strike – and others born of last-minute finagling.

But in trying to stage a strike-era festival resembling normalcy – with advance ticket sales so far “tracking at or ahead of where we are in non-pandemic years,” according to Bailey – TIFF must also engage in a difficult balancing act. How can festival organizers support the labour rights of artists while not alienating the studio partners that they depend on for their programming?

“We’re on the side of resolving it – we’re not qualified for getting into the nuts and bolts of how it’s resolved,” says Bailey. “It’s better for everybody, the writers and performers and companies that hire them, to be on the same page. It’s not for us to say how.”

Lee, who mentions that SAG-AFTRA’s lead negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland may be attending TIFF to deliver a talk, adds that the festival has a role to play in hosting difficult conversations. “We have that platform for stakeholders to talk not only about the strike issue but all the relevant issues right now.”

Still, the star-factor dilemma is far from TIFF’s only challenge this year.

Last week, it was revealed that longtime lead sponsor Bell is ending its partnership with the festival after this year, leaving an annual $5-million hole.

At the same time, TIFF quietly confirmed to The Globe two high-level staff departures so fresh that both the executives’ names are printed in the official festival program: chief operating officer Beth Janson, who was revamping the organization’s notoriously frustrating online ticketing system, and vice-president of partnerships Elisabeth Burks, who spearheaded the deal to secure Bulgari as a major sponsor last year after L’Oreal lowered its commitment.

Add in this week’s news about TIFF “pausing” its partnership with Therme Group – whose controversial Ontario Place redevelopment forms an ungainly triangulation of obligations between private corporate interests, Premier Doug Ford’s government and a TIFF dependent on provincial support – and the pledges and promises of Canada’s splashiest not-for-profit organization begin to pile up.

On the staff departures, Bailey says that there’s “not anything I can say about it, only that the organization continues – it’s strong, and we have great people in place.”

“When senior people leave, you’re always wanting to pay attention to make sure that the existing team can do what they need to, and that they have the support they need,” he continues. “The message right now is that we’re continuing and we’re ready.”

Bailey’s team is also ready to envision a future without the support of Bell.

“The landscape has changed so much since we started with Bell. We’re looking for partners that will actually engage with what moviegoing is like now,” says Bailey. “We’re looking at new opportunities not just in Canada but everywhere. And while the Bell news just broke publicly, it’s been something that we’ve been planning for many months. It’s not sudden to us.”

Ultimately, though, the health of TIFF is the health of the Canadian film sector – and as goes our country’s industry, so goes the global cinema ecosystem. No matter who does or doesn’t walk the red carpet, which films do or do not earn standing ovations, who will or will not help lead and support the organization, TIFF is an institution that anyone interested and invested in culture needs to see survive, and thrive.

“Varda is a good example of serving the strategic vision that we currently have,” says Lee. “Of ensuring that we create a cultural hub for audiences, filmmakers and industry members not only during the festival but year-round, too.”

May TIFF, and the industry it serves, find its Hollywood ending. And fast.