Toronto Heads Talk Organizing Pandemic-Era Festival: "Obviously a Different Year"

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Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente

"It's exciting this year to challenge buyers, challenge voters, challenge audiences to have new films to contend," executive director Joana Vicente said of the the lineup for the 2020 edition.

On Sept. 10, the Toronto Film Festival will roll out a virtual red carpet to open its pandemic-era 45th edition.

Festival co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey plan a slimmed-down 2020 festival, with few Hollywood stars appearing in person and a first-time digital platform for the event to take place mostly online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Toronto has so far done well to tackle the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, but has only begun to fully return to some degree of normalcy after entering stage 3 of its pandemic recovery plan.

And with travel bans and quarantine orders expected to still be in place in September, TIFF organizers anticipate no international guests, including press and industry representatives, at its Sept. 10 to 19 edition, to kick off with HBO's Spike Lee-directed filmed version of David Byrne's American Utopia Broadway stage play opening the festival.

"It's exciting this year to challenge buyers, challenge voters, challenge audiences to have new films to contend," executive director and co-head Vicente told The Hollywood Reporter just before unveiling the final 2020 film lineup for September.

THR spoke to Vicente and Bailey about plans for this year's festival.

How did going online for your 45th edition impact your festival preparations and film picks?

Vicente: We'll have a hybrid festival, so there's a physical component, we're going to be relying on drive-ins and outdoor screenings and we'll probably have some indoor screenings, knowing now that Toronto is going into phase 3 (of pandemic recovery). And then there's a very strong digital component, not just for the public, but for the industry as well. So we really built the festival knowing we had all these elements.

Did the major studios delaying film titles to later this year or 2021 add to the uncertainty of putting together a film lineup for September?

Bailey: You would have seen the volatility in the release landscape — the calendar, what films were coming out when. Films were moving into next year, or just shifting a few weeks or months down the road. And that was a part of what we were dealing with while looking at films. Eventually that began to settle into place and we knew which films would be available to us. We still got thousands and thousands of submissions in the door. So it was as big a challenge as ever to narrow it down to the 50 films we ended up with.

You're planning for physical screenings in the first half of TIFF. With Toronto opening up, are you planning to possibly screen films in theaters during the final five days?

Vicente: We're working with the authorities and things keep changing. But now it feels like, going into phase 3, we have a plan. We're going to have more details on all the venues, the user experience, in the next week or so. We're still organizing the schedule, and the venues and how that will expand through the 10 days.

Do you expect to have any American talent at TIFF, with travel bans and quarantine orders to possibly still be in place in September?

Vicente: It doesn't seem like the border will be open. And even if it opens, there's a 14-day quarantine. So we're definitely going to have talent from all over the world participate virtually. There might be some talent already in Toronto, or shooting in Vancouver that could potentially come in, but we're not expecting any international guests.

Toronto has always touted itself as an awards-season launchpad. Does the Academy Awards being pushed back to April 2021 impact that reputation this year?

Vicente: This year is obviously a different year as the fall festivals are earlier. But I actually feel there's an opportunity for some of the films that will be highlighted at the festival to be part of the awards conversation. That's a role we always played, but sometimes with more obvious titles. It's exciting this year to challenge buyers, challenge voters, challenge audiences to have new films to contend.

Bailey: I think award season voters will want to take a close look at Kate Winslet's performance in Ammonite. She is just incredible, it's one of the best roles she's ever done. Of course, she's already won an Oscar. Same thing with Halle Berry in Bruised — another Oscar winner who delivers one of the very best performances of her career.

Toronto's People's Choice audience winner is widely anticipated by awards season voters each year. Will there be audience award winners crowned this year with the digital edition?

Bailey: We will have the People's Choice Awards this year. We migrated to online voting two or three years ago. We'll continue with that as audiences have the opportunity to see the films, whether in person or online, and vote for the film's of their choice, so that will continue.

You have a long list of TIFF Ambassadors. How will that high profile talent be used this year if they don't attend the festival in person?

Vicente: We felt it was important in this unprecedented year to get the support of people who kept asking 'how we can help?' So we put together the list of ambassadors. They will be interacting with audiences and different stakeholders. We will see them have a presence at the festival, a lot of them from outside Canada.

Bailey: We often in recent years had "In Conversation" events that were live, in-person events in a cinema and this year we'll have those as virtual events on our online platform. And our ambassadors will be the talent pool that we draw on for that. We're drawing on our ambassadors to help us kick start industry conversations for the industry audience. We've got a lot of stakeholders who are really important supporters of ours, and we want to make sure they get opportunities that they would usually get in a green room or at a social event, and they can do that online (this year).

Will industry execs that don't travel to Toronto for film screenings still be able to market titles on your virtual platform?

Vicente: We'll have a press and industry platform. That's where all the industry and press will be able to screen the film, and do business, very much like the Cannes market happened digitally this year. We'll have the capacity to create those opportunities on our platform.