Toronto Film Festival Unveils First-Ever Virtual Edition Amid Pandemic

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Toronto Film Festival

TIFF-lite 2020 plans in-theater screenings for around 50 indie titles as well as online screenings, red carpets, press conferences and industry events on a digital platform.

It was only a matter of time. The 2020 Toronto Film Festival, set to run Sept. 10-19, has opted for a hybrid event with limited in-person film screenings and mostly virtual red carpets, press conferences and industry events amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, Toronto organizers said Wednesday.

Festival co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey revealed a slimmed-down September event will move mostly online this year with a first-time digital platform to comply with safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We could never have anticipated the global seismic changes we would be facing in 2020 … The distilled edition of TIFF 2020 reflects a deep love of film, passion for our loyal audiences, commitment to the industry and a whole lot of heart," Vicente said in a statement.

TIFF plans to screen around 50 film titles during its first five days in physical theaters, pending a greenlight from city and provincial health and safety authorities. And all festival facilities this year will need to conform to rigid health precautions and protocols to allow larger public gatherings that ensure the safety of festival guests, staff and volunteers.

The first indie film titles to be announced include the MMA drama Bruised, Halle Berry's debut directing feature in which she also stars; Ricky Staub's horsemanship drama Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba; Francis Lee's Ammonite​, toplined by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan; Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round; ​Fauna,​ from director Nicolás Pereda; Reinaldo Marcus Green's Good Joe Bell​, starring Mark Wahlberg; Spring Blossom​,​ ​the debut film by director Suzanne Lindon; and Naomi Kawase's True Mothers.

Toronto programmers promise a focus on "first-rate international cinema, documentaries and Canadian creativity." TIFF also plans film screenings at drive-in theaters during a year where social distancing will be the watchword.

To ensure star wattage for the pandemic-era Toronto festival, organizers have also recruited around 50 directors and actors to serve as "TIFF Ambassdors," many of whom are veterans of the Canadian festival, including A​va DuVernay, Taika Waititi, Nicole Kidman, Martin Scorsese, Nadine Labaki, Alfonso Cuarón, Tantoo Cardinal, Riz Ahmed, Isabelle Huppert, Claire Denis, Priyanka Chopra, Viggo Mortensen, David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Sarah Gadon and Denis Villeneuve​.

Festival organizers had hoped for the public health crisis to be contained in time for the annual September event. But while Ontario has touted progress in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, it has yet to allow local movie theaters to reopen, or large indoor gatherings to go ahead.  

The result is a downsized 2020 edition that will feature physical screenings where possible and a digital festival where necessary.

"In countless phone calls over the past three months we have rebuilt our festival for 2020 drawing on our five decades of commitment to strong curation, support for filmmakers and engagement with audiences," Cameron Bailey, co-head and artistic director, added in his own statement.

Other virtual touches to the 2020 edition are planned interactive talks, film cast reunions, and Q&As with casts and filmmakers. The online platform for TIFF will be supplied by Shift72, where digital screenings and online talks and events will be hosted.

And Toronto's TIFF Tribute Awards, which last year honored Meryl Streep, Watiti, Mati Diop and Joaquin Phoenix, will return online this year, as an international audience will be able to view the event virtually, organizers said.

Toronto heading online was prompted by the City of Toronto revoking municipal permits for all major events and festivals with 25,000 or more people attending until Aug. 31 amid the ongoing pandemic. TIFF organizers, as they planned for the September event, also consulted with rival festivals that were earlier canceled or delayed.

But given TIFF's status as a launchpad for Hollywood's awards season push toward the Academy Awards, news on whether Toronto could roll out its red carpet and hold an in-person festival, or see sponsor-driven fan zones on King Street be abandoned as the festival went virtual, was eagerly anticipated in industry circles.

A TIFF industry conference has been set to run Sept. 11-15. That event will also move online this year, as will press and industry screenings and informal conversations with actors and directors.

Also mitigating against Toronto welcoming the industry in-person was the city being near to the U.S.-Canadian border, closed to non-essential traffic, and cross-border coronavirus hotspots in New York and New England. That meant TIFF programmers as they screened films and prepared a 2020 lineup could not be hopeful that Hollywood stars might physically walk its red carpet this year into the Princess of Wales, Elgin and Roy Thomson Hall theaters for glitzy premieres.

The virtual model for TIFF has been laid in recent months as self-isolating Canadians were invited to virtual chats with Hollywood stars led by Bailey, followed by movie screenings on the Crave streaming service. Crave-parent Bell Media is TIFF's biggest corporate sponsor.

That initiative was prompted by Bell Lightbox, TIFF's year-round home with five screens, being forced by the pandemic to shut down. Earlier this week, the financial hit from the Bell Lightbox closure led the festival to lay off another 31 full-time employees.  

Toronto's disrupted plans for its September event come as a number of events and large gatherings have been postponed or halted due to concerns about the spread of the disease while officials seek to encourage social distancing.

Cannes, Tribeca, SXSW and other main dates on the festival circuit have already been canceled or postponed. This week, the Cannes virtual market is being held as a digital alternative.