TIFF 2020: How virtual business really went down during an unprecedented Toronto film festival

Noble Horvath

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today. There are two sides to the Toronto International Film Festival. The first is the splashy, public-facing portion, where prestige dramas and high-wattage celebrities take over the city, in […]

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.

There are two sides to the Toronto International Film Festival. The first is the splashy, public-facing portion, where prestige dramas and high-wattage celebrities take over the city, in a physical or virtual fashion, for a week and a half every September. The second, and arguably more important, side is the business end of things. Increasingly, TIFF has become a market where film deals are made and artists’ futures are secured.

But while this year’s TIFF sparked its share of buzzy business headlines thanks to a handful of high-priced purchases (Netflix’s US$20-million acquisition of Halle Berry’s Bruised, Solstice Studios’ US$20-million fee for the Mark Wahlberg drama Good Joe Bell), the real action happens on the sidelines, where no cheques are signed.

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Thanks to initiatives such as Ontario Creates’ International Financing Forum (IFF), an event designed to bring production to the province and forge relationships between homegrown and international producers, filmmakers take the opportunity of TIFF to not only binge-watch movies but pitch productions to sales agents and financiers – all part of the messy years-long process of getting a film from the page to the screen.

TIFF 2020: Everything you missed at this year’s festival

“Our mandate is economic development for the creative industries, so at TIFF we work hard to create new business opportunities for producers,” said Erin Creasey, manager of industry initiatives for Ontario Creates (formerly known as the Ontario Media Development Corporation). “We’ve had a long history, with more than 100 projects that have gone into production that started at IFF.”

But how does this essential relationship-building work in a year devoid of physical meet-and-greets? To gauge the behind-the-scenes industry action in an unprecedented and increasingly tumultuous landscape, The Globe and Mail spoke with a handful of producers who participated in this year’s virtual IFF.

Damon D’Oliveira, Conquering Lion Pictures

The Toronto-based producer Damon D’Oliveira, the longtime business partner of director Clement Virgo (CBC’s Book of Negroes) was at the IFF shopping the pair’s latest project, the romantic thriller Jamaica Farewell. While likening IFF to a matchmaking service – “they’re setting you on the first date with a bunch of players, and then you carry on the process until you clench an engagement” – D’Oliveira noted that this year’s online process was peculiar, but also vital.

“It helps keep the industry going, which is so fragile right now,” said D’Oliveira, who delayed production this past summer on Virgo’s adaptation of David Chariandy’s novel Brother due to ongoing COVID-19 insurance issues. “People need entertainment, so that’s not going to go anywhere. We just have to be mindful of globalization of the industry, where the small guys are being squeezed out.”

William Woods, Woods Entertainment

Toronto producer William Woods (Mean Dreams, Spinster) was pulling double-duty this year. Not only was he pitching an adaptation of the sci-fi graphic novel Sin Titulo at IFF, he was showcasing two completed productions, the dark comedy The Kid Detective and the drama Like a House on Fire, in the inaugural “TIFF Selects” program.

The new slate was composed entirely of sales titles – that is, completed movies looking for distributors -–which were available to view by members of the press and industry, but not the public. Ostensibly, the program was designed to give the films, which TIFF might have included in its official programming had it been a normal full-sized year, some extra buzz. Although it didn’t quite work out that way.

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“The success of the program remains to be seen, but I just wish that the public was able to watch the movies in some way,” said Woods. “For The Kid Detective, we were in the process of rushing to get it ready if we were invited to TIFF. When we found out we weren’t, we slowed down our process. Then they said 10 days later, ‘Okay, you’re invited to TIFF Selects.’ I’m not sure it was worth the insanity to get it finished … Having said that, I understand the festival wanting to only spotlight 50 films because they thought those were the best.”

Woods’ experience with the IFF was as smooth as it has ever been, though – possibly more so. Whereas sales agents and distributors previously squeezed in meetings between screenings, and there was the sense that everyone was looking over your shoulder, participants this year were focused and engaged.

“During a normal TIFF there are so many distractions, and while I wouldn’t substitute online meeting rooms for in-person conversations, you had the full attention of people,” said Woods. “And the roster of attendees – Amazon, Universal, Studio Canal – speaks for itself.”

Summer Shelton, Story Farm

Based in North Carolina, rising indie producer Shelton (Keep the Change, Little Accidents) was participating in the IFF to seek partners for her and director Jennifer Gerber’s Has Been Beauty Queen, a drama about Arkansas’ beauty pageant circuit. Mostly, she was “attending,” such as it is, to get financing and casting going. But she also found an unexpected side benefit.

“It makes it feel not so lonely, because producing is a very lonely job, to be honest,” said Shelton. “Any time that you can leverage your peers for validation and motivation, that’s a blessing. And with travel being a question mark in the near future, to all of a sudden have two-dozen new contacts from countries all over the world made from my living room is amazing.”

As for the tenor of the room, so to speak, Shelton found a comforting spirit of co-operation.

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“People were empathetic, and a bit more okay hearing about uncertainty,” she said. “Everyone is struggling together to figure out the unknown, but I could tell that everyone at their core has a desire to tell impactful stories and bring an emotional experience to audiences. When people come to the table, or computer screen, to make that happen, that’s a powerful thing.”

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