Cameron Bailey predicts Toronto International Film Festival breakout movies
Cameron Bailey is always ready for the impossible question, the one about whether there’s an overall theme to the 200-plus features the Toronto International Film Festival programs most years.
He’s been asked it every year from journalists in the decades he’s been at TIFF, first as a programmer and then as artistic director and co-head and now as the fest’s CEO.
The question is usually a struggle for Bailey. How do you sum up that many films in a few words? This year, though, Bailey has a ready answer. As the world has emerged from the nearly three-year nightmare of COVID-19, which darkened many movie theatres for lengthy periods, filmmakers have responded with films that celebrate their art.
“I have noticed a number of filmmakers, whether it’s Steven Spielberg (‘The Fabelmans’) or Sam Mendes (‘Empire of Light’) or others making films about filmmaking or about the culture of cinema, let’s call it that,” Bailey said in an interview.
“In the past, we’ve seen lots of film-world satires, movies like ‘The Player.’ But I think there’s a much gentler, almost nostalgic tone now that I’m seeing from filmmakers. They’re really looking back at how film has been a powerful emotional medium, a way of bringing people together. And in a year when we’re finally coming back after not having been able to be together, it’s interesting to see a number of movies that are striking that chord.”
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It’s also gratifying for Bailey and his team, all of whom endured many dark days of worry, wondering if TIFF’s audience would still be there when the pandemic ended. But as he puts the final touches on the first almost-normal fest since 2019, there’s a note of relief and gratitude in his voice as he talks about how moviegoers and filmmakers have returned to theatres and film festivals.
“Things are coming together. There are still lots of details to put in place, but we’re excited.” He’s happy to talk to the Star about what’s in store during the Sept. 8 - 18 run of TIFF 2022:
Q. I hate to mention the pandemic and I hope we never have to talk about it again. But are there any remaining pandemic restrictions or will this be a “no COVID” festival?
A. For our audience, there are no COVID restrictions in place this year. We’re at 100 per cent capacity in our theatres. We’re not asking people to wear masks. It’s optional. It’s their choice. And we’re not asking for proof of vaccination when people come into the theatres. The one thing people will notice is that our staff will be masked throughout the festival.
Q. How has the public responded to the news that you’re going to be a fully in-person event again, with only a modest digital component compared to the previous two years?
A. With enormous excitement. You know, we’re hearing that people have been waiting for this, that they’re so excited that the festival is back. They can’t wait to see movies in theatres again with an audience. We’ve had the whole summer movie season to get used to the idea of going back to movie theatres and there have been some big blockbusters like “Top Gun: Maverick” and others. I think the movie-going habit has come back.
Q. How have the movie industry and celebrities responded? Do you have a feeling that Hollywood and the rest of the film world are going to come back to Toronto in force?
A. Ask the people who run hotels, restaurants and event spaces in the city: People are coming back. The film teams behind all the movies that we’re showing are coming to town, and that’s from Hollywood, in the U.S. and all around the world. We’ve got movies from 63 countries this year. Everyone’s planning to be here, although there are some new elements to travel. It’s not maybe as fast and as convenient as it was pre pandemic — there are visa bottlenecks — but things are still getting back to normal. People are applying early and doing everything they can to be here. And lots of people are planning events before and after their screenings and premieres. There’s a lot of excitement about putting on a proper launch of a movie like you were able to do before the pandemic.
Q. I know you have a policy of not talking about the films you didn’t get for the festival. But what percentage do you think you got of “wish list” films?
A. It’s hard to say, because the other factor here is you can have a wish list and then sometimes you watch the movie and it’s no longer high on your wish list. Or sometimes the movie comes out of nowhere and you had no idea that you should be wishing for it. So the wish list really is a constant work in progress. I would say that I’m thrilled with the lineup we have, which I think is really one of the best lineups we’ve ever had. I have no disappointments in terms of what we’re presenting for audiences.
Q. But you can talk about the films you did get, and your biggest coup this year is landing the world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” which is based on his family life growing up in Arizona. It’s Spielberg’s most personal film and his first time bringing one to TIFF. He must really have wanted to show it here, because you’re screening it for the public five times.
A. Yes, we really wanted to screen that film as many times as we could for our audience. Spielberg and his team at Amblin Entertainment and the Universal Pictures team were focused on Toronto as the launch for the film and we’re thrilled that they did. I think it’s in large part due to the Toronto audience; they know the value of that reaction that Toronto audiences give to movies. They really give them a springboard to launch in theatrical release. We know everybody’s going to want to see it. And so we are able to play it a number of times this year, which gives people more opportunities to catch this amazing film.
Q. “The Fabelmans” is going to be one of the breakout films at TIFF, but can you name others you think might leap out of the fest to become award-season contenders and conversation starters?
A. Man, there are so many I’m not going to get all of them! I can’t wait for people to see our opening night film “The Swimmers.” I think that one is going to be a breakout, one of the most moving films I’ve seen this year. The A24 film “The Inspection,” by Elegance Bratton, is launching the Discovery section this year. I think it’s also going to be a breakout; I think the trailer for that is already out. And you know, let’s see what happens with the Weird Al movie (“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”) with Daniel Radcliffe; it’s one a lot of people are looking forward to.
“The Woman King” is another one that there’s been a lot of excitement about from people I’m hearing from. Let me see. There are many others. “Empire of Light,” an absolutely beautiful film and one of the number of films that show filmmakers really reflecting on what movies mean to them.
Q. What has changed the most for TIFF’s September festival since 2019, the last year before COVID? Will people notice a difference?
I think for the audience it’ll feel very similar and there’ll be some changes I think will be for the better. It’s a walkable festival. Roy Thomson Hall, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Princess of Wales Theatre and TIFF Bell Lightbox are all within such close walking distance. Even the Scotiabank Theatre is just another five minutes away from that orbit. So you’re going to be able to be on foot for most of the festival to get to places more quickly and to bump into people and just trade ideas and opinions of movies that you’ve seen or that you want to see. Which is what the festival is all about. The only outlier to that is Cinesphere at Ontario Place. I love Cinesphere and I wanted to have it as a part of our venues this year again, and we’re presenting some movies in IMAX exclusively for the first time this year. So that’s something that will be fun.
Q. The Festival Street promenade is coming back for the fest’s first few days. Can we hope that there won’t be construction in front of TIFF Bell Lightbox this year?
A. We have been talking with the city for many months, and we’re going to certainly try to minimize construction during the days of the festival. In some cases, it will be paused. In other cases it’ll just be minimized as best we can. And you know, we’re doing everything we can to make sure that it’s just a convenient experience for people and it’s not too disrupted by other things going on in the city. 🌓
(This interview was edited and condensed for space and clarity.)