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Q&A: Toronto festival director Piers Handling

CEO talks about 35th edition, new year-round headquarters

Piers Handling has led the Toronto International Film Festival since 1994, and he has made it an industry must-attend and a launchpad for fall Oscar contenders. Now he's pulled off another mission impossible: Launching Bell Lightbox, the festival group's year-round headquarters that will open its doors Sept. 12. Bell Lightbox in a stroke ticks off a number of career goals for Handling: creating a festival hub for press and industry attending TIFF and a permanent home in Toronto for cinema fans and giving locals more than a 10-day event in September. That's a long way for someone who joined TIFF as a programmer in 1982, becoming programming director five years later on his way to being named festival director and CEO in 1994. The Hollywood Reporter's Etan Vlessing talked with the festival's CEO and director about TIFF's 35th edition and possibly his crowning achievement.

The Hollywood Reporter: Personally, how does it feel to finally open the long-delayed Bell Lightbox?

Piers Handling: It's a culmination of a 10-year program for us to have our own home. This is a really big step in my career, as well as for the organization. This will allow us to do so much more. This is a key moment in our history.

THR: The expectation is Bell Lightbox will draw the Toronto festival from Yorkville to the city's downtown and give TIFF a focus it's never had.

Handling: Bell Lightbox will be a catalyst, a place where the industry can meet. The [Hyatt Regency] hotel will be right next door. No one likes a festival that's spread out. Everyone wants social spaces, access to one another. Bell Lightbox has two restaurants, a lounge and bar. There's hotels in the immediate area. It will be so simple for people to run into one another. [TIFF] will be a very concentrated, easily accessible event, where the industry, media, and buyers and sellers will constantly be running into each other, and that's paradise for the industry.

THR: Toronto collecting round Bell Lightbox won't happen overnight?

Handling: It will take a couple years for that to happen. I saw that in Berlin. But pretty quickly, people will want to be around that new center of gravity. The Ritz Carlton will open in the fall. They'll be a slew of new hotels down here. Roy Thomson Hall is just around the corner. So the center of gravity of the festival is clearly moving to around Bell Lightbox. If you want to go from your hotel to film screenings and back, I think you'll want to be in the immediate vicinity.

THR: Toronto tends to have half of its films as acquisition titles and the other half with distribution and looking to launch here. Will that continue this year?

Handling: Around 50% of the films will be looking to be acquired. And for many of the foreign-language films, it will be difficult for them to be acquired. I think they're just coming here for exposure, media exposure in particular.

THR: What are your overall expectations for Toronto's film market this year?

Handling: The years of bidding wars are over. Every festival has noticed this: Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, where a lot of deals used to be done. It's definitely a buyers' market. Buyers can sit and wait for prices to come down, assess whether they actually want to invest the resources. There will be some deals done in Toronto, but most of the work will be done in the weeks and months after the festival.

THR: Toronto has sustained criticism that it's too Hollywood, too much of an elite festival. Fair comment?

Handling: It's still a public event. Most of the cinemas are full of the public, rather than professionals. I can walk into any cinema and know that 80% or 90% of the audience are ordinary members of the public. If you really want to get into a film, there's a way to get in.

THR: You've added an extra day to TIFF this year. Why?

Handling: We felt that the public had only one full weekend, the first weekend, to see films. Obviously, the public goes to see films more on the weekend. Years ago, we used to have an extra day of screenings on the final Sunday. And we thought why not make that official, and turn the festival into two full weekends, four full days, to broaden our audience and reach out to people who can't afford to take the week off to dip into some of the films they may have read about.

THR: Tell us about the Canadian contingent in Toronto this year?

Handling: It's a strong year. There's a number of our strong filmmakers – Sturla Gunnarson, Denis Villeneuve, -- who have been here before with major films, and are back. And we have almost a dozen first-time filmmakers, starting with Daybreak Nation. So it's always a lovely mix of first-timers, which speaks well to the future of the industry, and some solid filmmakers.