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Can TIFF 2020 dodge a viral bullet?

This is the time of year when the Toronto International Film Festival normally begins its summer-long reveal of plans for its big cinema celebration in September.

This traditionally follows months of planning and screenings by TIFF officials, programmers and other staffers, a process that includes a visit to the Cannes Film Festival in May to pick up award winners and other hot prospects.

But nobody needs to be told that 2020 isn’t a normal year, thanks to COVID-19, and the virus doesn’t respect tradition.

Cannes 2020 didn’t happen, despite strenuous efforts by the French festival organizers, because government health regulations declared mass gatherings illegal.

Neither did the physical versions of Austin’s South by Southwest, New York’s Tribeca and Toronto’s Hot Docs festivals, which opted to move some of their films to online platforms.

At time of writing, TIFF still intends to put on a film fest, which is scheduled to run Sept. 10-20, right about the time that a feared second wave of viral infections might occur — or not.

TIFF recently sent out a call for applicants for some of its most-popular September festival events, among them the Rising Stars program for up-and-coming actors (alumni include Tatiana Maslany, Sarah Gadon and Stephan James) and the Pitch This! competition for aspiring filmmakers.

If TIFF 2020 does happen, it will be a festival unlike any other, as TIFF co-heads Cameron Bailey (artistic director) and Joana Vicente (executive director) made clear in a video message released early in April.

Bailey noted that while plans for the 45th edition of TIFF are underway, “there is still some uncertainty about what ‘people coming together’ will look like come September.” A hybrid festival of socially distanced in-person screenings, along with virtual premieres and other screenings online, seemed the likely course for this year, at least for now.

Vicente said there’s been talk of TIFF 2020 acting as a “united platform” for movies that include ones that were supposed to premiere at other fests.

Cannes has announced it will release a list of films it was planning to select for the Palme d’Or competition and other parts of its official selection, on June 3, for what would have been its 73rd edition.

“Effectively, we’re returning to our roots as a festival of festivals, which is how we started off nearly 45 years ago,” Vicente said.

More recently, Bailey went online from his home office to chat with critics for the U.S.-based film website Indiewire, adding more meat to TIFF 2020’s bones during a live 41-minute “Screen Talk” podcast.

Speaking with Indiewire’s Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson, and also doing a Q&A with online listeners, Bailey said the coronavirus represents an “existential threat for all film festivals” because it strikes at the communal nature of these gatherings.

He spoke of the “really eerie experience” of watching films on his home TV screen for TIFF consideration that likely would have premiered elsewhere, including at least two that would probably have been chosen for red-carpet bows at Cannes (he declined to name them).

Assuming — hoping — that people will be able to go to movie theatres in September, the plan now for TIFF is to mix indoor experiences with outdoor and online ones, he said.

“We’re looking at an online platform that gets more films to our audiences. We’re looking at some of these crazy outdoor things— drive-ins are suddenly back, so we’re looking at that as well. And also, of course, using the cinemas that we’ve used in the past.”

TIFF normally welcomes hundreds of celebrities to Toronto every year, many of whom come from the U.S., Europe and Asia. With travel brought to a near standstill by the virus, and no sign of an early return to normality, TIFF is planning to replace the red carpet march outside Roy Thomson Hall and other festival venues with live video chats.

“If (stars) can’t be in person it doesn’t mean that they don’t turn up at all,” Bailey said. “It just means that they might be on a big screen in a Toronto movie theatre. They might be actually engaging with fans in a more direct way, like we’re doing right now.”

TIFF will still present big Hollywood movies like last year’s breakout hits “Knives Out” and “Hustlers,” Bailey said, as well as many small gems curated from around the globe. These films will be available for viewing and buying because producers, directors and talent want them seen by TIFF’s discerning audiences.

But the 2020 version of the festival will inevitably be smaller than the 2019 edition, which had 333 titles: 245 features, 82 shorts and six series from 84 countries and regions.

Just how much smaller remains up in the air, Bailey said. Much depends on what government and health officials allow to happen. Best guesses now are that movie theatres might reopen in late June or July. TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival’s headquarters, is tentatively set for a July 1 reopening — but the virus may have other ideas.

“We are looking at a festival that’s the right size for this year, and that’s still very much a question to be decided,” Bailey said.

“We’re probably not in a position where we can do the 2019 festival in 2020. That’s just not realistic. But we want to do something that’s exactly the right size for this year that still celebrates movies, that still has those high-impact marquee films, that has the range of films that we’ve had in every year.”

TIFF gets a lot of support from the three levels of government and it’s probably going to need more this year because sponsorship money may be harder to get — airlines and hospitality industries have been hard hit by the coronavirus.

Bailey said TIFF is putting the case to politicians that it’s in everybody’s interest to have a good festival this year.

“What we’re trying to argue is that, certainly in Toronto, our festival is one of the key events that draws attention, that draws tourists and all of the dollars that come with that, to Toronto every year. And for that reason, it’s really vital that we present something exciting and strong this year.”

There may be some upside to this year’s upheaval. The competition between rival film festivals has been dialled way back in a “spirit of collegiality” that benefits everybody, Bailey said.

And the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, a prize voted on by TIFF attendees that often points to eventual Oscar glory, might become an even bigger thing this year due to online participation. The balloting is normally limited to people who see the films at TIFF venues in Toronto.

“This year people might be seeing some of the films that are in official selection from wherever they are in the world, maybe not from being in Toronto. In which case, we want to make sure that they still have a chance to vote.”

The fallout from the coronavirus could ironically make TIFF an even more international festival than it already is.

(This column originally ran May 28, 2020 in the Toronto Star.)

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