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In December, just as the Toronto International Film Festival was closing up shop for Christmas, a surprise press release announced a round of musical chairs in the fest’s inner circle.
Festival insiders were stunned to learn that co-director Noah Cowan — long considered the anointed successor to festival CEO Piers
Handling — was being replaced by veteran film programmer and broadcaster Cameron Bailey. Even more surprising was the fact that Cowan, in what can only be seen as a lateral move, was being reassigned to the artistic director post at Bell Lightbox, the festival’s year-round home that isn’t set to open until 2010 at the earliest.
Cowan’s move followed the return to Britain last fall of Jim Hamilton, the former British Film Institute head of exhibition picked by Handling in 2006 to run the festival’s future headquarters.
By the time the dust settled, the industry was left to wonder who — if anyone — would succeed Handling on the Toronto throne.
“All this was related to how much control Piers was willing to give to Noah,” a festival insider says.
Despite being hired in 2004 as co-director, Cowan never fully seized the festival reins from Handling, who emerged as anything but a lame duck.
“Piers is still the CEO of the whole festival group. If he’s still there, there’s no room for Noah,” says Irene Chu, a member of the board of directors at the Toronto International Film Festival Group.
Handling insists he still has plenty to give. “(TIFF) completely keeps me engaged,” he says. “I don’t see any end to it, and I’m still a little too young to see an end to it.”
Handling, who likes to hire from within, says he made Bailey the new public face of the festival so he could continue to have a hand in programming the festival himself as he shepherds Bell Lightbox to completion. What he doesn’t say, however, is why he was unable to do that with Cowan.
“I’ve told (Bailey) my feelings about how I want to stay deeply involved in the festival,” Handling says. “With Noah, he was clearly brought onboard to transition into the role of festival director. With Cameron, it’s a little bit different. I think he wants to see if this is a role that suits him. He’s very comfortable with the two of us sharing the directorship of the festival.”
For his part, Bailey is playing his cards close to his chest. “It’s a great fit,” is all he says of his recent appointment.
According to insiders, Bailey’s appointment is an attempt to address a need that became more and more apparent with each passing year: In Cowan, Toronto had a respected programmer drawn to indie film gems like a shark. But the festival needed someone like Cannes’ Gilles Jacob, a versatile personality as adept at year-round schmoozing as he is at programming.
Now it has that personal charm and presence in Bailey, who has been with the Toronto festival in varying programming capacities since 1990, including launching the Planet Africa section and heading up Perspectives Canada.
“There’s much more diplomacy and glad-handing in the job now, which comes more naturally to Cameron,” says Peter Howell, a longtime Toronto Star film critic. “Noah is a great guy, but he finds it harder to be the bon vivant. It was a good switch, and Noah will be very happy. It’s a win-win situation.”
Film distributors, who each year battle for prized launch slots in Toronto, already see Bailey’s appointment as a step in the right direction.
“It’s an enormous undertaking to deal with them (TIFF),” says one influential distributor. “It’s a big fight every time — big negotiations, who’s paying what, who’s inviting whom and how many tickets everyone gets. The new guy, he’s a lot better in terms of social grace. He’s very accommodating, and we’re having an easier time negotiating.”
Of course Handling, with his extensive web of industry relationships, is still called on to tete-a-tete with major players to resolve prickly issues.
All of which exposes the irony of a festival that gives its programmers carte blanche to select films — in contrast to rival festivals like Cannes and Berlin, where directors personally approve films in their festivals — and yet shackles the top programmer with a co-directorship during a seemingly endless transition.
“The beauty of the system is it’s not committee programming. It’s not a top-down system, it’s bottom up,” insists Sean Farnel, a former Toronto festival programmer and now top programmer at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
As part of a tradition fostered by Handling, and followed by Cowan and now Bailey, programmers are still entrusted with filling space in the festival lineup with their best picks.
“We had a dialogue through e-mails about issues in film. We discussed the work. But because we are hired as programrs, there’s faith and trust that we will put together the best program that we can,” says Kathleen Mullen, the newly installed Short Cuts Canada programmer.
But despite whispers that he should by now be focusing on big-picture issues at the festival, Handling defends his continuing hand in programming for quality and continuity.
“The festival is still, in terms of everything we’re doing, the most important thing we do,” he notes. “It takes up to 75% of the budget. Ten years from now it will be different, when Bell Lightbox will match the profile that TIFF has through its 10 days.”
Does that mean it will be another decade before Handling hands over the reins for good? “At this stage of the game, it’s important for me to pay a lot of attention to the festival,” he says.
On the programming front, Bailey insists it’s business as usual, aside from a stepped-up focus on Canadian and Asian films. In addition to bringing Mullen onboard to curate the Short Cuts sidebar, Toronto also hired Matthew Hays to select Canadian work, and former Hong Kong-based Fortissimo Films executive Raymond Phathanavirangoon to select films from Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, alongside colleague Giovanna Fulvi, whose focus is mainland China, Japan and South Korea.
On the market front, Bailey promises to program fare that manages to showcase a filmmaker’s vision while also generating interest from distributors.
“Films that are affecting, well-made and have something to say will tend to get distribution,” he observes. “It’s not a perfect world. But in most cases that happens.”
Bailey isn’t drawing conclusions about the current downturn among specialty distributors amid a saturated market for indie releases.
“We will quickly see which buyers in Toronto are whipping out their checkbooks, and which are waiting to see films, and which aren’t buying at all. I can’t give you any conclusions about what it means at this stage,” he says.
And despite all the front-office turmoil, Bailey insists Toronto will continue to live up to its reputation as a coveted launchpad for prestige pics heading into the always-frenzied awards season.
“Four of the five best picture nominees last year had their North American premier in Toronto,” he says proudly. “If you use the Academy Awards as a guide, we had a good year.”
Paul Gross’ “Passchendaele”
Strange as it sounds, Paul Gross’ “Passchendaele,” the Toronto International Film Festival’s opening-night film, may have never been completed if it weren’t for rising gas prices.
Flush with oil revenue, the Alberta provincial government pumped $5.5 million into the $20 million war epic that Gross, a native Calgarian, wrote, directed, produced and stars in.
It turns out that thanks to his deep Albertan roots, Gross was able to tap some Canadian oil spoils that may have very well been off limits to anyone else.
“The film was inspired by my grandfather, who was an Albertan. I’m an Albertan, the film was set in Alberta, and it was always our intention to shoot in Alberta,” he says.
Although set against World War I, with its bayonets, barbed wire and bloody battlefields, “Passchendaele” unfolds mostly in and around Calgary. It opens on a wounded Canadian soldier, played by Gross, who returns home from France to recover mind and body.
While in a military hospital, the soldier falls in love with his nurse and, before long, returns to Europe to protect her younger brother as both face impossible odds in the historic Battle of Ypres.
The commercially driven “Passchendaele” could also help Toronto get back its first-night mojo.
The Canadian festival customarily launches with a homegrown film to give a much-needed boost to local filmmakers before high-profile Hollywood fare, glitzy parties and photo ops dominate the rest of the festival’s 10-day run.
But in recent years, Toronto organizers chose smaller films to open the fest instead of large-scale crowd-pleasers. Not this year: The festival passed over homegrown contenders like Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness” — a Canadian co-production shot in Toronto, which opened Cannes — and Atom Egoyan’s “Adoration,” to hand the plum slot to “Passchendaele.”
“It’s not often that you get an epic film, a big-scale, sweeping production about such a pivotal moment in Canadian history that’s been brought to the screen by such a well-known figure,” Toronto festival co-director Cameron Bailey says.
Gross confesses to some opening-night jitters, but adds, “We kind of think the picture will knock them out of their seats.”