How TIFF made Toronto a festival town

With 75 film festivals in Toronto each year, the hardest part is deciding what to see

Chris Young/CP

Toronto’s unofficial motto has always been “a city of neighbourhoods,” but perhaps it should be changed to “a city of film festivals.”

Although the 38th Toronto International Film Festival will grab the lion’s share of attention this September, there will be four other film fests going on in the city at the very same time, of varying size and scope: the Toronto Indie Film Festival, the Toronto Urban Film Festival, the Cabbagetown Short Film & Video Festival and—pause for breath—the COMMFFEST Global Community Film Festival.

It’s not that September happens to be an abnormally festival-happy month. Throughout the year, about 75 film fests unspool across the city, screening at venues both high and low, from the luxe TIFF Bell Lightbox to middling rep cinemas and community centre basements. Torontonians could—if they truly desired—attend a different event each weekend. But why has the city become such a magnet for film festivals, more so than even such artist-friendly cities as New York and Chicago? The answer, as is so often the case with Toronto, is multiculturalism, according to Steve Veale, a board member of The Film Festival Association (TFFA), a recently formed organization that aims to be a hub for Toronto’s film-fest community.

“The majority of our festivals are based on all of Toronto’s various cultures—so we have the Polish film festival Ekran, the Jewish Film Festival, the Irish Film Festival and so on,” says Veale, who is also deputy director of the Toronto Indie Film Festival. “These all have a built-in audience, and most do not overlap.”

Indeed, it seems that nearly every other Toronto ethnicity or cultural group has claimed a film festival of its own. While some have higher profiles than others—the Reel Artists Film Festival has attracted such TIFF-worthy guests as Marina Abramovic, while Reel World has snagged Deepa Mehta and Danny Glover—they all operate on the same principle: to showcase movies that would otherwise not find an audience.

“The TO Indie Film Festival presents the hidden gems, as opposed to the Hollywood-hyped blockbusters, for instance,” says Veale. “People come out to support their global roots and get in touch with films from their home countries—and in many cases, to hear their native language on the screen.”

The sheer number of Toronto festivals can be overwhelming. There’s Hot Docs for documentary-lovers; Inside Out for LGBT features; Toronto After Dark for horror buffs. Even TIFF runs a few supplementary fests during the year, including TIFF Kids (formerly Sprockets) and Canada’s Top Ten. It can all be a bit much for even the most dedicated cinephile, especially with the rise of iTunes and video-on-demand, which now allow movie-lovers to watch the latest art-house releases in the comfort of their own homes. It’s reasonable to think there’s a danger of film festival cannibalization. (And no, there’s not a Toronto Cannibal Film Festival. So far.)

And yet, despite some stumbling blocks—the Worldwide Short Film Festival is currently on hiatus, the Canadian Film Festival took a few years off before coming back in 2012—the scene continues to grow, even thrive. Hot Docs celebrated 20 years this past spring, Reel Asian recently expanded into Richmond Hill, Ont., and the environmentally conscious Planet in Focus will mark 15 years next fall. Remarkably, most of the festivals seem to get along with each other, too, with few fights for publicity or ever-scarce venues.

“Other film festivals are usually very supportive,” says Shirley Hughes, director of the Toronto Silent Film Festival, which is heading into its fifth year in 2014. “None of us are competing with each other for audiences. There are so many niche and genre festivals.”

This “live and let live” attitude almost acts as the defining trait of the scene, says Mohammed Jiwan, chairman of The Film Festival Association. “The film community [in Toronto] is made up of individuals who love the medium and are happy to see participation in general grow more than simply building their own audience,” he says. “There are enough viewers for everyone to have a successful festival.”

It’s doubtful, though, that any of the festivals would exist without the blindingly bright spotlight that TIFF brings to the city each fall. “Almost 40 years of TIFF, with its increasing exposure and reach locally and internationally, have raised the awareness of [the city and its arts],” says Jiwan. “Some choices of where to settle have even been influenced by the festival and the city’s artistic expression.”

Marcelle Lean, founder of the French-language film fest Cinéfranco, has seen the change over her four decades in Toronto.

“When I arrived in Toronto 40 years ago, the city was far from a breeding ground for festivals, let alone cinema,” says Lean, whose festival has been going strong since 1998. “Toronto was a prude, rigid, dull city. … The development of [TIFF] and film festivals came from the passion of people and their competence in creating festivals addressed each segment of the population, creating institutions.”

And for that, TIFF’s ever-growing offspring are grateful. “TIFF is arguably the cultural event that put Toronto on the global map,” says Veale. “I hate to use that dreadfully overused expression ‘world class,’ but TIFF truly is.”