Reflections and learnings from Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
After being away for most of the pandemic, I got the chance to return home to Toronto for a visit and re-experience the energy of the city during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). For the first time since the pandemic began, TIFF had returned to its roots – complete with the glitz and style of the event - and lit up Toronto’s downtown core with thousands of celebrity stargazers, cinephiles, socialites, influencers, aspiring filmmakers, and industry reps alike. TIFF was back and it came back in a big way!
With a badge in hand, for 10 days, I worked from a Telefilm Canada table at the TIFF Industry Centre. I listened in as content creators attempted to pitch their modern-day Romeo and Juliet love stories or their new takes on horror and suspense films that would bring audiences to the edge of their seats. I struck up conversations with random industry reps and journalists who had the [mis]fortune of choosing to sit in my vicinity. And I met with festival directors, partners and film commissions to get a sense of their challenges, what’s trending, and what’s planned for the next generation of film festivals
Amidst plenty of conversations, three themes repeated themselves:
1. The need to define and curate a voice
Creating an experience for audiences to connect and return to with thousands of in person and virtual entertainment providers available.
- What makes one cinema unique from the next?
- How can it differentiate its experience from the cinema down the road?
- Outside of price, how can one virtual platform distinguish its film offering from its virtual neighbour?
- What emotional connections can be established with an audience that will make them want to commit to your curated voice?
“Jennifer” (not her real name) – a seasoned US-based cinema director – identified with the struggle. With cinemagoers focusing on the major blockbuster attractions to draw audiences, Jennifer was looking for a way to attract independent film lovers while catering to donors and sponsors who wanted to maintain the classic heritage of the building and the classic curated voice via the films she chose to show.
To attract audiences, "Jennifer"…
- Hosted film workshops and local college showings throughout the year
- Live streamed industry interviews online and onto the larger screen
- Created a narrow focus for the types of films she brought into the theatre. For “Jennifer”, [her theatre] enhances the cultural and physical environment of her region and encourages the discussion of film as an art.
“Jennifer” understood the importance of positioning the experience in the minds of her audience and her donors ensuring that her audience knew what they were going to get anytime they walked through her theatre’s doors or visited her theatre’s website. She created an identity – a brand – that people could relate to and return to while adding value by providing her patrons with an opportunity to connect in a virtual or in person community.
Separate from Jennifer, a panel of experts highlighted the need to create a place for domestic content to give audiences the opportunity to connect with their own backyard.
“There is a desire amongst cinema operators to make going to the cinema more of an event but it shouldn’t be solely at the expense of the cinema operator”
Jackie Brenneman, Executive Vice President & General Counsel at National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO)
2. Nostalgia or Norm: Will in-person return?
Have viewing habits returned to pre-pandemic behaviours in the cinema and festival space or are TIFF’s impressive in person attendance figures an anomaly?
Despite 50% fewer films released in the summer of 2022 compared to pre-pandemic (2019), the summer cinema market did exceptionally well thanks, in no part, to the success of Top Gun : Maverick. The evidence – when combined with digital streaming data – shows a continued demand in entertainment options with worldwide SVOD revenues projected at $80B in 2022 alone. But the future of how that content is experienced is uncertain and 2022 is proving to be a test in what that future looks like.
According to the November 2021 New York Times article, Movie theatres must ‘urgently’ rethink the experience, prior to Top Gun : Maverick, amidst a proliferation of streaming services, “About 49 percent of pre-pandemic moviegoers are no longer buying tickets… roughly 8% likely have been lost forever”. Without a hybrid option available, will film destination spaces forego a large sector of the market or is there a space for both to succeed?
At TIFF, the answer was both. TIFF’s panel discussion, Perspectives – the Future of Exhibition, which featured a host of experts in the cinema space discussed the state of studio relations, streaming wars and the box office outlook going into 2023. The panelists – including Chris Aronson, President, Domestic Distribution at Paramount Pictures (Top Gun) - emphasized the need for streaming and for continued experimentation with pricing and watch windows before the film moves to a streaming device. During the pandemic, 3 studios experimented with a 60 day window at a set price point. Though the results are unknown, the practice emphasizes the continued need for festival, cinema and distributor alike to experiment with pricing and delivery to maximize the perceived value for the customer.
“Streaming has created a new financial model that has made the production of these films viable. This is the world we’re in. It’s evolving and continues to evolve but the industry has never stopped evolving”
TIFF Perspectives Panelist
3. Virtual is here to stay but connection is more than a stream
The buzz around King Street West – home of TIFF’s programming facilities – reinforced the desire to be a part of a community; to experience the sights, sounds and collective feedback driven by a touching moment, a thought provoking story, or the awe of celebrity. However, that community is not restricted to an in-person experience. While some festivals and cinemas have succeeded post pandemic, others struggled to create the required connection to draw their audiences back to their venues.
The film will only ever be part of the experience and positioning on comfort and sound is a fading competitive advantage. A connection must be created to establish loyalty. This can be done through:
- A unique curative voice
- Direct contact with the creators themselves via live stream or in-person
- Creation of exclusive clubs with membership benefits
“People are viewing value in terms of value for time and not just money”
Chris Aronson, President - Domestic Distribution at Paramount Pictures
Despite lockdowns, the perfect model for hybrid is still in experimentation mode
With every meeting and discussion, there was a broad consensus that virtual is a required component to sustain the entertainment business model. Despite studio concerns over piracy and the content creator’s desire to have a theatrical release, long after the watch windows settle, films will always need to secure their content, and visionaries will always need an accessible home to tell the story of their time while financially rewarding the creators who provided the vision for audiences to experience their voice. In the absence of Blockbuster and with the emergence of streamers and producers like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix, making it easy to find and connect to a brand, voice/content has become the role of the distributor. In the festival space, the question remains: what is the optimal model?
In 2022, as festivals tried to determine the right balance of virtual and in person, we saw new formats emerge both at TIFF and abroad.
1. Restricted Digital. Full in Person
While running their ongoing annual program, the Toronto International Film Festival decided to release 24 Festival Films to the public via their digital.tiff.net platform. For Cameron Bailey – TIFF’s Executive Director – the virtual screenings were intended to provide a “a taste of the full in-person festival for people located elsewhere in Canada” or, presumably, for those who were unable to travel due to traffic, accessibility or scheduling issues.
2. Single screening physical. Delayed Digital for All
With a goal of providing as many films in the theatrical experience they desired, some festival partners have elected to conduct a single in-person screening for all films with a digital follow-up within 48-72 hours. Perhaps best for data gathering and feature content curation, this is a great model to understand the format and genres people want their experience to take. The model provides a sense of exclusivity and urgency to share the experience with the cinema-going community while also providing a degree of accessibility for those who are unable to attend due to scheduling or ability. Testing of this model is still early and the 2022 data will determine its effectiveness.
3. Hybrid For All: Multi-screen and online (HFA)
Certainly the most common among major festivals, HFA provides one or many in-person screenings and combines it with a digital video on demand offering. World premieres or first screenings are done in person – sometimes with Q&A – and a combined offering of virtual and in-person screenings are available for selected films throughout the festival.
With live-streaming available as part of streaming platforms, audiences can purchase a dual ticket that provides the option to view in person or online. The data – once again – will lead to greater insights on the content curation strategy for successive festivals and annual programs.
Though only absent for 18 months, it has been three COVID years since I got to experience a live event, concert, film, or street party in the city of Toronto. It’s a strange scenario of having this simultaneous need for community and shared experiences with a pandemic health concern and – in some cases – a continued desire for isolation. Because of the abundance of virtual convenience that has been created in the last 3 years, a physical event now comes with the added health exposure, and mental filter in addition to the common money and traffic concerns.
Referring back to TIFF Perspectives, audiences are abundantly aware that time is now their greatest currency. It is incumbent upon virtual and in-person events to establish a sense of value for an audience’s time if they want to create a sense of loyalty in a market where content is plentiful.