Toronto: TIFF Tribute Awards Producer Talks Besting Netflix, the Fest's Online Pivot and Post-Pandemic Future

Randy Lennox of Bell Media
Bell Media

"We knew we had to compete," Bell Media CEO Randy Lennox says of his Crave streamer out-muscling Netflix for first-night TIFF bragging rights for two years running.

Last spring, the global coronavirus pandemic had the Toronto Film Festival organizers grappling over some big decisions: go virtual or remain an in-person festival this September.

So TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey in May turned to Randy Lennox, president and CEO of Canadian media giant Bell Media, to help take TIFF past that fork in the road to where Hollywood and its audiences increasingly live: online.

Lennox — a former Universal Music Canada topper before becoming the country's biggest media industry exec — spearheaded the Toronto fest's Bell Digital Cinema platform for online film screenings, and his CTV network will produce and broadcast the star-driven TIFF Tribute Awards to honor Kate Winslet and Sir Anthony Hopkins, among other Hollywood stars.

"I'm too Canadian to make any claim other than trying to support a festival that's 45 years old and wants to be around for a long time," Lennox tells The Hollywood Reporter when asked how he saved this year's 45 edition as the COVID-19 crisis drove it online.

At the same time, Lennox did drop his Canadian politeness when out-muscling Netflix for first night opening film bragging rights at TIFF. "It isn't lost on us that Crave is Canada's Netflix," he adds about Bell Media's local streaming platform, Crave, which contributed Toronto's opening night film on Sept. 10 — Spike Lee's film version of David Byrne's stage musical American Utopia.

That's after last year when another Crave original, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard, opened Toronto's 2019 edition.

Lennox talked to THR from his Muskoka cottage retreat two hours north of Toronto and recalled his collaboration with TIFF organizers to rescue their disrupted 2020 edition and ensure Bell Media, Crave and the Toronto Film Festival survive the pandemic.

When did you sit down with Toronto Fest co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente to first plot the rescue of the 2020 edition amid the pandemic?

We were having conversations all through May, June and July. The optimist in us planned for a live event. The realist in us planned for a virtual event, starting in late June. At that point, it became easier. Instead of having many plans, we could focus on one plan and one intention and one platform. That's when we could announce the David Byrne film as the opening movie. And for the first time we're going to televise on CTV and Crave the TIFF Tribute Awards show, featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Kate Winslet. Those things happened really as we began to say, okay, let's go and make the best of this.

Another collaboration early in the pandemic was the digital screening platform for Crave and TIFF through the summer. How did that come about?

I had a call with Joana and said, okay, there's going to be an obvious streaming platform. We decided that, with each film, we'd interview actors, and in some cases directors, and try that from their home. And Cameron Bailey is a great interviewer. We began with Beetlejuice and Catherine O'Hara. We'd thought we'd do a half-dozen movies. And in March, we really didn't have a trajectory on how it would last beyond 2020. But as COVID became more permanent, this became more contiguous. And we're still doing them.

It was assumed the Crave would become Toronto's digital platform for its September festival. How did that evolve into TIFF's Bell Digital Cinema platform rolled out for the 20th edition?

Bell is the above-the-title name partner for TIFF. I don't like the word sponsor. I like the word partner, in all things. And Crave is intermittent. We have to be discerning in the films that end up on Crave. But in many cases, we're proud to say independent films do end up on Crave. So we're branding Bell continuously, and Crave where possible.

Toronto chose Netflix's Outlaw King as its 2018 opening night film. Now, for two years running, TIFF has opened with Crave titles — including Spike Lee's American Utopia this year. You're looking to keep Netflix out of the running for TIFF's first night flick?  

You smartly point out 2018. There was nothing disrespectful to Netflix. But in my ambition, the fact is we did make a content proclamation. We knew we had to compete by making a great film. We're proud that we did with the Robbie Robertson movie, and this year, with the David Byrne movie.  

Toronto's slimmed-down 2020 lineup has no Netflix titles this year, after TIFF embraced the streaming giant and its original movies in recent years. Just a coincidence as Bell Media steps up this September?   

It isn't lost on us that Crave is Canada's Netflix. And that we as Canadians need to remind our own country that we're very proud of our offering and, yes, we're a highly competitive people. We're just polite because we're Canadian.

How much did Bell Media acquiring majority control of Pinewood Toronto Studios help you nab TIFF's opening night films two year's running for Crave?

The vision behind Pinewood — which we're expanding and by the way Netflix has some of our soundstages, so we do play well with others — was for people to understand we are walking the walk. That we're not a stereotypical broadcaster. We wanted to send that message out with a cannonball — we're here as content players.

Toronto going virtual amid the pandemic greatly disrupted the festival's TIFF Tribute Awards. You stepped in and Bell Media Studios is producing the gala show, and your CTV is airing it countrywide, while it streams worldwide. What can we expect this year?

The opening night film is Thursday [Sept. 10] and the gala is the following Tuesday [Sept. 15]. It will be fully integrated. Bell Media on-air talent will be in studio. Cameron and Joana of course will be in the studio. The presenters will be so world class. We're going to make this our Oscar-level awards show in Canada.

You see your TIFF Tribute Awards TV show repeating in future years for Toronto, and even becoming an international format?

First, the televised nature of the awards show is due to COVID. And now we're sitting here and saying, my gosh, this could be the first of many years to come. And second, as the caliber of presenters goes up and up, this becomes something that we see going worldwide. Right now, we're just getting this off the ground, but our ambition and expectations every day goes up incrementally.

How many of the on-the-fly innovations that you've done as TIFF goes virtual do you see sticking around in future years, post-pandemic?

Let's face it, life is a long road. And this is an anomalous bridge. We have to hope and pray it's only for one cycle in 2020. And, like sports and like other art forms, that we're all back with robust businesses in 2021. For now, we're in a bit of denial. We're powering forward, damn the torpedoes, to make sure the TIFF, Crave and Bell Media brands are seen out there. And frankly we're doing this when there's very little commerce to be had. As you can well imagine, festivals and other creative pursuits are not exactly raking in revenues at this point. So we're doing this with a lot of passion.

Do you see Bell Media, by helping TIFF pivot online, having saved this year's event?

Life is a team effort. You need media partnerships for the long term. So I need to give credit where credit is due. Cameron and Joana are very creative and very tenacious executives. We together are coming up with good ideas to build a bridge back to normal. And I'm too Canadian to make any claim other than trying to support a festival that's 45 years old and wants to be around for a long time. That's in the same way we want to be around for a long time.