Toronto 2011: Festival Director Cameron Bailey Embraces Public Aspect of Event (Q&A)

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TIFF's main man discusses why the festival is about more than just films, what the business climate is like and the art of breaking bad news to directors.

With the Toronto International Film Festival in full swing, festival director Cameron Bailey is busy directing traffic from his corner office at Bell Lightbox. Hosting a busy festival comes naturally to Bailey, who was born in London and raised in Barbados and Toronto, and who has film in his DNA.

His diplomatic cool has lifted his career from film critic and festival programmer to taking Toronto to the pinnacle of the global festival circuit. Bailey took time out from his busy schedule to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about running a people’s film festival, a film market and ensuring dark economic clouds don’t rain on his party.

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The Hollywood Reporter: The tagline for TIFF 2011 is “See It Happen Here.” What is “it”?

Cameron Bailey: Good question. I think for each person that attends the festival, it is different. For some people, seeing it happens here means seeing their favorite stars on the red carpet, for others it means that movie they discovered, and that they didn’t know anything about and love. And for others it is attending a Q&A, or asking a question of someone they’ve always admired. Or it might be something totally unexpected, and they see Chantal Akerman coming out of a cafe, or someone they studied at university and suddenly a person that was a name in a textbook is front of them. It’s those live experiences that happen at a festival that we’re talking about when we say See It Happen Here.

THR: So it is Toronto moving away from the traditional model of a festival being about films to a broader experience?

Bailey: Yes. It’s the films, plus everything else.

THR: And Toronto is still about being a public festival?

Bailey: What’s always been distinct about Toronto is it’s a public festival. So the audience really matters, and the experience of the audience members are what makes the festival kind of unique. We’re not just an industry festival, although lots of business happens here. We want to encourage people to find their own individual experiences.

THR: The program year seems to be front-loaded with world premieres of star-driven U.S. studio and indie titles, followed by North American and international premieres of foreign film titles. Is that reflection of TIFF’s priorities?

Bailey: I don’t think so. It wasn’t our intention to emphasize any particular region in the announcements. There’s a bit of front-end loading. That’s always going to happen. We have the galas and special presentations and the big stars. But it’s always going to be about the films. We want to bring the best films from around the world to Toronto.

THR: Did you intentionally front-end acquisition titles, as opposed to films coming into Toronto already with U.S. distribution?

Bailey: There’s pros and cons to being scheduled early in the festival. There’s lot of business activity here. So we’ve convinced people that there’s advantages to screening in the middle of the festival. The films may get more attention then.

THR: What were those conversations like, telling someone their film may not screen on the opening weekend?

Bailey: They’re savvy enough to understand that a film can do just as well on a Monday, Tuesday or elsewhere than the first weekend.

THR: What’s the mood for the film market at TIFF this year, and will the recent bad economic news in the U.S. of late spook buyers?

Bailey: When we went through the (2008-09) recession, there was a little bit of a lag. Then last year the market was strong, and I saw this continue at Sundance and Cannes. I don’t think that the (U.S.) debt crisis will affect this year. Our sponsorship is up, our audiences are up.