TIFF with fewer stars amid Hollywood strikes is a ‘critical moment’

The Toronto Film Festival is at a critical juncture after three difficult years following the COVID-19 pandemic, but “the festival will happen,” said TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey.

TIFF has generally been a star affair and an awards season staple. However, what the red carpets will ultimately look like at the gala premieres and tribute ceremonies that have been given to important figures like Kate Winslet remains unknown.

The festival’s longtime director has doubled down on efforts to push this year’s festival forward, whether or not the big stars are in attendance. It comes amid ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that have brought the Hollywood industry to a halt, placing the remaining months of movies and TV shows in uncharted territory.

While Bailey is optimistic about TIFF’s plans and its future, he recognizes the critical moment the festival finds itself in after being heavily impacted by COVID and still trying to regain its mojo.

The controversial labor strikes in Hollywood have not only affected TIFF, as the entire entertainment industry is feeling the impact. The Primetime Emmys, scheduled for Sunday, September 18, will likely be postponed. The Venice Film Festival lost its “Challengers” festival opener starring Zendaya after MGM delayed its release to 2024. And there are reports of more movies coming out of the season, such as Warner Bros. “Dune Part Two” and “The Color Purple.”

So far, TIFF has announced the world premieres of Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” with Michael Fassbender and Atom Egoyan’s “Seven Veils” with Amanda Seyfried.

As the industry juggles its disputes, Bailey spoke with Variety about navigating this tumultuous time and what the festival needs to survive.

The 48e edition of TIFF is scheduled to take place September 7-17.

Do you have discussions with studios to withdraw their films from the festival because the talents will not be able to participate due to the strike?

Cameron Bailey: Now is a good time for us to check in with the companies bringing these movies to us and the filmmakers themselves on a regular basis because things are changing. We are all trying to figure out the situation and what kind of picture we can expect in September. It changes almost daily. We check in with everyone, confirming where they are – people make new plans in some cases, or they confirm plans or have to check with other people before they can confirm plans. So we’re in the middle of that. The good news is that we are still planning to announce many galas and special presentations on Monday. We know that.

You were originally supposed to unveil the lineup on July 19, but you moved it to July 24. Was it due to the conversations you had with the studios about whether their films would make the trip to Canada?

It was because I wanted to get out of this week’s coverage, which was so much about the strike and its impact on productions, negotiations and everything else. We didn’t want to make festival announcements in the middle of that. It didn’t seem like the right time for this. So we took a step back and decided to go on Monday instead. We have a lot of good news that we want people to know about, but we thought we’d give this week what it demands – some attention to what’s happening with Labor Action.

Several sources tell Variety you reconfigure the lineup to add more independent and international films. Is that the case?

The number of movies that could be added, or any movement, is minor. I would say that the periphery of the overall range is very much in place and solid. What we do, however, is make sure we can confirm who can. We have a lot of international movies, and we’re amplifying the news around that, reminding people that every year about 70% of our programming comes from outside of the United States. This is normal for us, but we emphasize it for everyone. We also check who is covered by the strike restrictions. If you’re outside of that because you’ve made a film in another part of the world where you’re not using SAG-AFTRA’s on-screen talent, then these are the ones we wanted to fully confirm that people can be here to showcase their films to our audience. We followed the news in Variety and other places on how independent productions are moving forward with tentative deals. We want to understand how this applies to independent films already made and planning for festival premieres. Can there be similar waivers for these? We would like to have a direct conversation with SAG-AFTRA, but we understand that they are very busy at the moment, but I think that would help. We’re also checking in with my colleagues and executives at other fall festivals — Venice, Telluride, and New York City — and are ready to talk to others.

Without the big stars, many fear attendance will drop dramatically, which would have huge financial implications for the festival and local businesses, especially post-COVID. Can TIFF survive if the festival is canceled due to various factors affecting the industry?

The festival will take place. Contrary to what some media reports said, there was never a question about the festival. There was never any question of us not keeping our dates in September. These things that we know will happen. Because we’re a big city, full of movie lovers, I’m sure our audience will come to see the movies. We still have some great movies, and like every year, I think audiences will want to see them. The presence of the actors and the excitement aroused by the stars are important. This is important for many stakeholders, including some of our public partners, who build their commitment with us around the presence of these stars. It’s important to us because it’s a huge part of our revenue every year, and it’s under threat. This is a serious concern for us, and we hope we can find a solution because we are non-profit and have gone through two years of festivals affected by the pandemic. We came back strong last year, but we can’t afford to be hit again. Between international and independent films, we don’t think they need to ban the presence of their filmmakers and actors. We want to make a strong festival while respecting Action Travailliste and its objective.

When you say you “can’t afford to take another hit”, is that a watershed moment for TIFF and a critical moment for its future?

It is a critical moment. I wouldn’t call it a “do or die” moment. The September 11 attacks happened during our festival. The SARS crisis affected our festival. Of course, COVID has affected us all. We have already been through a crisis and we will come out of it on the other side. But it is a serious threat to the festival while we are still recovering. So I don’t want to underestimate what that means either. We will be there, but it hurts.

What can we expect from your tributes that generally went to the actors? Will it be more filmmaker-focused?

Similar to the movie schedule, we review this on a case-by-case basis. Each year, we reward actors, artisans, filmmakers and others. We are working on it. We plan to move forward with our tribute rewards event, scheduled for the first Sunday of the festival. We are in the process of determining who can accept an award and who can attend. We want to work within the current guidelines for trade union action.

AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA and WGA negotiators have yet to return to the table to resume talks to end these strikes. What message do you have for them and what would you like to see to come to a resolution?

Films are part of a fragile ecosystem. There are big companies, actors and the film business, but there are independent films with thousands of actors, writers and directors making them independently. Festivals like ours, Venice, Telluride and Sundance, are all there to support the wide range of cinematic art. It makes it very, very difficult to do that. We are trying to find a way to meet a real challenge to continue to support and present films across the spectrum that we believe audiences should see to help strengthen this fragile ecosystem. We want people to keep going to the movies. This has been so important to many of us regarding how we navigate the world and interpret our experiences. If people don’t have consistent opportunities to see movies, then I think the whole ecosystem is at risk. Film festivals may seem like a frivolous little thing to some people, but it’s one of the ways you breathe life and oxygen into this system. That’s what we want to be here and continue to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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