A year-round operation is the dream of any great festival but few have achieved it.

As this blog kicks off I am in Toronto, for a film festival I have not attended for about ten years. In the 1990’s I went every year, as director of the Sydney Film Festival. This year I am here as press – a murkier pool in which to swim. When I started coming here in 1989, it was already arguably the most important festival in North America, not quite bigger than Sundance in terms of media and power to discover new films, but close. Those two covered the year – six months apart. In January the studios piled into Sundance with fat cheque books looking for the new talents; six months later they all trooped to Toronto to showcase their product for ‘fall’ – or autumn as we say in the south. Now in its 40th year, Toronto has grown an awful lot since I was last here.

The festival began as an anti-Cannes: a bunch of cineastes in Toronto decided they wanted a festival where dinner jackets were not compulsory on the red carpet, where art was as important as commerce, a more honest kind of ‘festival of festivals’, which is what they originally called it. Things have changed: Toronto’s commercial power has become immense and that is always a danger to art. On the other hand, I have never seen another city as movie mad as Toronto, nor as willing to go ‘out there’ for things they have never seen. That was what allowed my friend David Overbey, one of the pioneers, to establish Toronto as the place for Asian cinema among western festivals – at least during the 1990’s. David made John Woo a household name amongst Torontonians, partly because the Toronto audience followed programmers with great loyalty. There were six or seven when I first came here – and each had his or her following. A few are still running the festival – Piers Handling is the ever-unflappable CEO; Cameron Bailey is artistic director (old hands at the Sydney Film Festival may remember that he was a guest during my time, to present an African series).  David Overbey was the most outrageous and beloved of the team back then – a tall gay man from Arkansas, he wore cowboy boots, smoked Gitanes, drank vodka (and most other things) and had known many of the great directors of the golden age of Hollywood personally. His stories about some of them kept me laughing for hours. He burned the candle at both ends, more than anyone I have known. He once told me that he had no interest in living past 60 and he got his wish. He dropped dead in his apartment one morning in Toronto about a decade ago – the perfect way to go as far as he was concerned. I still miss him and his booming gravel voice.

Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become a year-round event since he departed. It has a new base in a purpose-built building, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, on land donated by Ivan Reitman, with cinemas, restaurants, a library and bookshop, bars and meetings places – a complete cinematheque idea. It’s the kind of place Sydney could have had if our state government had adopted the plan put forward 20 plus years ago by George Miller. The kind of place Melbourne now has with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Don’t get me started.

A year-round operation is the dream of any great festival but few have achieved it. London Film Festival is part of the British Film Institute with its once vast resources, but successive governments have shaved its budgets, so that it operates on a far less adequate scale than it once did. Toronto, meanwhile, seems immune to such problems. That may be because it has always been the most commercially-minded festival in the most commercially-minded town in Canada.

Here’s why that is interesting. Canada is a divided country in terms of language, as we all know. The French minority in Quebec demands and receives special treatment. Bilingualism is taken seriously, at least in the eastern provinces, but the richest town has always been Toronto. Other festivals in Canada have long and often brilliant histories – Vancouver and the Montreal World Film Festival in particular – but they have never eclipsed the big, brash, some would say arrogant team in Toronto. In Montreal, a festival I also attended many times, the show is run by the mercurial, venerable, entirely unpredictable and bellicose Serge Losique, who has battled with Toronto for at least the last 30 years, at every chance. How long Serge would last at the top of his less well-funded, less well-attended but still huge festival was always a question. Until now. Three weeks ago a number of senior staff quit on the same day, citing multiple factors.  

Losique came out fighting as usual and one comment was unintentionally telling:  ‘I have dealt with defamation my whole life’, he said. He insisted the festival would go ahead, as planned. Apparently it did – in one cinema instead of a dozen.

Its future, as they say, is uncertain. It’s can be argued that the Montreal World Film Festival only lasted this long because it is the festival for Francophone Canada.  It has been funded for political as well as artistic reasons. A country with two languages cannot afford just to fund English-language festivals, so Serge could always count on money to keep going, despite a number of public brawls with Telefilm Canada, the body that supplies the money. Those days may be over. If they are, it will be a shame because Canada has room for two or even three big festivals, and Montreal is almost as movie-mad as Toronto. Stay tuned for more as I wade into the vastness of the great north in September. Snowshoes will not be necessary in this heat, but stamina comes in handy.