Meet the Toronto International Film Festival Programmers, In Their Own Words

Meet the Toronto International Film Festival Programmers, In Their Own Words
Meet the Toronto International Film Festival Programmers, Their Own Words

We’re happy to present the Toronto International Film Festival as the first non-U.S. event in our ongoing series spotlighting festival programmers. Among its bragging rights are it’s an Oscar launching pad (the festival hosted the debuts of “The King’s Speech” in 2010 and “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009); it’s a major acquisitions market; and it’s enormous, presenting more than 300 films each year. And now it has a spankin’ new home in downtown Toronto, the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

After the festival’s 10-day run in September (this year it’s Sept. 8-18), the parent organization also hosts TIFF Cinematheque; its annual children’s film event, Sprockets, Canada’s Top Ten and more. (For more information about these events, visit the TIFF website.

The Toronto International Film Festival is headed by director/CEO Piers Handling and co-director Cameron Bailey, who oversee a team of programmers. We’re presenting eight of their profiles from eight programmers from across the festival’s sections (as well as Handling and Bailey). As always, we asked them for some autobiographical info, advice on how to approach submitting a film and their views on festivals’ evolving roles and place in the artistic and business landscape. And we asked them to throw in some recent favorite films for good measure.

Check out the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival lineup (so far).

indieWIRE’s other Festival Programmer Profiles:

Sundance Film Festival
Los Angeles Film Festival
San Francisco International Film Festival
Woodstock Film Festival

Piers Handling, Director and CEO, TIFF

Opening the door to cinema early on…

I fell in love with cinema at university where I saw the true possibilities of the medium. Godard’s films opened the door, but I soon discovered the European art cinema, the classics, and American directors like Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock. My first job after graduation was with the Canadian Film Institute which really gave me an in-depth knowledge of film. While there I discovered Canadian cinema and started to research, write, publish and curate work from my own country, invisible at the time.

TIFF Director and CEO, Piers Handling. Image courtesy of TIFF.

But, I also immersed myself in everything, saw everything, and read as much as I could. It was a fantastic place to be at the beginning of my career. I then lectured for 3 years at two universities before curating my first film programme for the festival (then called the Festival of Festivals) in 1982.

Handling gives his take on TIFF today

We are one of the must-attend events on the international calendar, perceived as being one of the most important festivals in the world. It is the largest festival in North America and is the place for fall releases. Companies setting their films up for autumn release as well as for award’s season come to Toronto. We have turned into a key marketplace for selling and buying, not just into the North American marketplace but also for foreign territories.

Size matters…

Toronto has a very successful model so I don’t see too many changes. Evolution is natural and will happen to us as well in response to the external climate. Festivals have become very important with regard to film distribution for a certain kind of film… mostly niche, although we have shown over the years that we can break films with $100m North American box office potential.

I think the mega-festivals like ours will continue to play a key role in the near future despite the arrival of so many new platforms. These may affect festivals but I think there will still be a key place for the major film festivals. Creating attention and noise around a film happens when you have very large marketing budgets, and as most films don’t they will be looking for the key opportunities afforded by the big festivals.

And back to the basics

Make a good film, that is different, creative, imaginative, stimulating – something that captures our attention.

And we’re looking for…

All of the above. We are also looking for films that deal with important issues of the day, that are connected to their social reality, that say something about the culture in which they were made.

Piers’ recent favorites

“Mysteries of Lisbon,” “The Strange Case of Angelica,” “Nostalgia for the Light,” “Poetry,” “Film socialisme,” “A Screaming Man,” “127 Hours,” “Crime d’amour,” “Gorbaciof – The Cashier Who Liked Gambling,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Of Gods and Men,” “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech.”

Cameron Bailey, Co-Director, TIFF

Student, rabble-rouser, critic, dropout & TIFF trailblazer…

English literature student. Discovered theory at a tender age. Cinema Studies grad school dropout. Minor cultural rabble-rouser and alt-weekly film critic in Toronto. I began programming for TIFF in 1990. First I helped choose Canadian films, then dreamed up our Planet Africa programme, then retired and went back to writing. Was yanked back into the organization in 2005, programming Africa, South Asia and the Philippines. In 2008 I took up the role of Festival Co-Director.

TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey. Image courtesy of TIFF.

We strive to be the leading public film festival in the world. We’re here to serve our audience. Luckily we have one of the most informed and enthusiastic audiences in the world. And luckily the world’s filmmakers, critics, buyers and sellers seem to be aware of that.

TIFF as a “human experience”

In Toronto, half of the population wasn’t born here. We are a ferociously diverse city. Our Festival has to reflect that. Regarding distribution, one of our jobs is to help bring films to audiences long after our tent folds for the year — that can be via big screens, small screens or mobile ones. Don’t care. What I do care about is the live, human festival experience where hundreds of us get excited about a film all at once, it invades us all at once and we’re called to respond to it together. That’s what our factory makes.


Understand that we see thousands of films every year. That idea that might seem original probably isn’t. We hate arthouse cliches as much as we hate commercial movie cliches (or at least I do.) Strong, simple, personal voices always work well in cinema when matched by the technical ability to execute them and clear aesthetic judgment. And, finally, most films are too long. Yours could probably be tighter.

Distinctive, unique voices. Images and sounds that take our breath away. No wasted bandwidth.

A few of Cameron’s recent favorites

“Black Swan,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

Colin Geddes, TIFF programmer for Midnight Madness (also runs ActionFest in the U.S.)

The video store, the zine and TIFF as film school

When I first came to Toronto in 1988, TIFF (known then as the Festival of Festivals) served as my version of film school since my original path was attending college for graphic design. The Festival taught me a great deal and broadened my appreciation for international cinema.

Toronto programmer, Colin Geddes. Image courtesy of TIFF.

In the mid-1990s I managed an alternative video store in Toronto, Suspect Video & Culture (celebrating its 20th anniversary Aug 3rd!) and also self-published a zine on Asian cinema. Standing on a soap box and preaching about a relatively unknown cinema at the time got me a certain degree of respectability and the Festival began to come to me as a consultant. In 1997, I was offered a job as a programmer. Since then I have worked as a film curator, film archivist and have even done service deal distribution in Canada handling films for Magnolia, IFC and Tartan.

Assessing TIFF

One of TIFF’s strengths is that it is first and foremost a public festival. The access that the audience gets to engage with directors and actors is unsurpassed. I’m not talking about autograph hounds at the red carpet galas, but I have seen audiences interact with the talent in both the cinemas during the Q&As and casually on the sidewalks with the likes of Danny Boyle, Werner Herzog or Bong Joon-Ho.

Since it is truly an audience-driven festival, as a result, when I select films, I am picking them for the audience. This keeps the programming very transparent and forthright.

Looking back at when I was a TIFF audience member in the 1990s, there didn’t seem to be such an attention on “The Deal” when it came to films getting picked up. Maybe I wasn’t as aware, but the Festival seems to have evolved into playing a major role in becoming an integral platform to introduce new talent to international distributors.

We don’t aim to please the buyers and sellers first, but rather make our selections based on engaging an audience with fresh and original works. This thinking has proved to make the Festival “the hit maker,” setting the course of the subsequent year’s cinema agenda.

Practical tough love advice…

Do your homework on what kinds of films get screened at TIFF and know who your audience is. Don’t submit your courtroom drama or family melodrama to Midnight Madness because frankly, you are just wasting your time and ours.

Don’t send a cover letter boasting that your debut film is unlike anything we’ve seen before and then go on to say that is was inspired by several notable films we have seen before. Don’t dare call your first film “Kubrickian.”

Be sure that you are 100% confident with the cut that you are submitting and that it is truly what you want decisions to be based on. Your story should be strong, clear and engaging. If the film was rejected for failing in those areas, resubmitting with a new score is not going to change the decision.

And please, just submit the movie. No extra gimmicks are needed. Once a DVD for a horror film was sent in a giant wooden box with a cryptic scroll attached. In the end, only the DVD was able fit in my player and the box went in the trash. Also, an XL black t-shirt won’t sway me.

For Midnight Madness I am looking for originality and strong storytelling, not shocking violence or special effects. I don’t believe in a film being “so bad it’s good.” It has to be so good it’s freaking awesome! I am looking to be surprised. Formulas only go so far. I am not looking for found footage films or zombie comedies. Those are as dead as films inspired by “Reservoir Dogs.”

Some recent favorites

TIFF Films: “13 Assassins,” “A Horrible Way To Die,” “Cold Fish,” “Stakeland”

Non-TIFF Films: “Hobo With A Shotgun,” “Bellflower,” “Drive Angry,” “Phase 7”

[TIFF programmer profiles continue on the next page.]

Check out the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival lineup (so far).

Diana Sanchez, TIFF Programmer for Latin America

TIFF programmer Diana Sanchez. Image courtesy of TIFF.

From Barcelona to Toronto

I was living in Barcelona and was in Toronto for the summer when a friend who was working at TIFF asked if I would help out with some Argentine filmmakers, and I did.

The following year, I received a call in Barcelona asking if I would like to work at the TIFF Guest Office for the 1998 edition, where I met my mentor Ramiro Puerta, then programmer for the Latin American and Spanish films. As I was in Spain for most of the year, I also had contracts at other European film festivals including the International Film Festival Rotterdam. When Ramiro passed away in 2002 I was hired as an International Programmer for TIFF.

TIFF the “launching pad”

TIFF is one of the most important launching pads for films on the international circuit. Apart from finding distribution, films are also seen by programmers from many other festivals and it’s an important way for the films to get an exposure that few venues can offer.

I think the thing that makes our festival so interesting and important is that it provides a rare chance for the audience to engage with the filmmakers. The shared communal experience of going to the cinema is intensified when there is a chance to interact with the people responsible for the film. This is what I love about festivals, and TIFF makes the effort to bring a guest with every film, no easy feat when you think of the quantity of films we show.

One quick piece of advice – and then some…

Submit the film through Withoutabox. We have a very efficient submissions team that tracks all submissions.

I think that we’re looking for unique, fresh, visually interesting films. Compelling stories that are well constructed and conveyed. I’m personally partial to films with urgency, that are sincere and uncontrived.

Sanchez’s recent takes…

I really loved “The Ghost Writer” by Polanski. I was mesmerized from the opening scene. I also liked “”Carlos by Assayas and Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light.” The Colombian film, “The Colors of the Mountain” was also very moving.

Jane Schoettle, TIFF programmer for Australia, USA, New Zealand and Israel (an anonymous person described Jane to iW, “One of the world’s most important programmers for US indie films.”)

Theater, writing, and Sprockets (TIFF’s Children’s Film Festival)

Starting in my late teens, I performed in theatre and in front of the camera for almost 20 years. I think that gave me a certain insight into filmmaking and the challenges artists face. Then I was very involved in writing about film, and then presenting international film to young audiences through the creation of Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children, which is something I feel very passionate about.

I was director of that event for about 10 years, concurrently with programming for TIFF for about 5 years, and then a few years ago chose to focus on TIFF and my portfolio here, which is covering Australia, Israel, New Zealand and American independents. A circuitous but oddly harmonic path.

Toronto programmer Jane Schoettle (and friends). Image courtesy of TIFF.

An aggregate and a place of discovery

TIFF is a lot of things to a lot of people – we like to think we are both an aggregate event and a place for discovery. We aim to bring the best films of the year from all over the world to Toronto’s very vibrant and discerning film-going audience.

TIFF is established as the place to kick off the fall cultural season and any and all awards campaigns. We also put a lot of energy and attention to servicing the sales and acquisition side of the business without companies having to incur the often substantial costs of an official market.

Many people think our major strength is our enormous public audience, and I can’t disagree. The demographic nature of both our city and our country is such that we are a meeting place for North and South America, Europe, Africa and all parts of Asia, and that’s something unique to us.

Working hard and moving forward – and thoughts on festivals as “distributors”…

We are always working hard to remain relevant and accessible. Our migration into the downtown core of the city, centering around our new building, TIFF Bell Lightbox, has been more than a geographical shift, it’s been a major psychological and philosophical one also, reaffirming our belief in the city – our city. I know there’s been a lot of discussion around film festivals having become a new stream of distribution, but I don’t personally believe it’s true or viable.

A lot of the discussion centers on filmmakers and/or sales agents feeling that screening fees should be paid for films, particularly at smaller festivals, because the bottom has dropped out of the art house market. The fact is that it costs us thousands and thousands of dollars to put every title on the screen, and I feel that we supply an infrastructure to support filmmakers and a launching pad for those concerned to utilize however best they can. I think that’s a fair exchange.

Filmmakers at our event get access to over 1,000 accredited journalists from all over the world – that’s impossible to obtain under any other circumstances. One move that I do think has promise is the cooperative launch of some titles over VOD day and date with a festival premiere – I think SXSW and IFC did this a few years ago.

I think if it’s the right film and the right festival there’s the potential for a lot of success with that strategy. I think there are some audacious ideas out there that will continue to innovate film distribution – but it will take time and money. Stay tuned.

Festival Strategy 101…

Please, please let us (or any of the other larger festivals of your choice) see the film first – whether it’s fair or not, premiere status is a big issue for a lot of festivals. Please don’t participate in 10 other festivals in North America and then submit the film to us – we will almost always give preference to a film that is a world or international premiere, because that’s what keeps the industry side of the festival percolating.

Also, please be patient – we do get thousands of submissions and a minimum of two sets of eyes see each title – that takes time. Don’t be afraid to email once to check on the status of your film. If we tell you that a film is not a good fit for us, we mean us – there are a lot of great places to launch films but we’re not perfect for every title. It’s hard for us to say ‘no’ a lot too – we’re very aware of what the stakes are. Sometimes we lose out on films too. I just tell myself that disappointment is temporary. It’s giving up that’s permanent.

What they’re looking for…

I think we’re looking for what the audience is looking for: innovation in form or content; fresh voices in storytelling and/or the latest offering in a filmmaker’s body of work. It’s all about having a singular experience in the big dark screening room.

Recent favorites

TIFF’10: “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Detective D and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” “Of Gods and Men,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Non-TIFF: There are non-TIFF films?

Rasha Salti, TIFF concentrating on Africa and the Middle East

TIFF programmer Rasha Salti. Image courtesy of TIFF.

The Beirut connection

I was born in Toronto but lived for most of my life in Beirut, Lebanon. It is where I am based now. I have been programming films for a little over 10 years now. I started working in Beirut in a small but very dynamic theater, then moved to New York City for graduate studies and worked with ArteEast, a non-profit organization based in the city, dedicated to arts from the Middle East and North Africa.

We started with weekly screening series titled CinemaEast, [and in] 2005, it grew into a biennial festival of films and the second edition was presented in 2007. At the same time we co-curated and co-presented film retrospectives with institutions like the Film Society of the Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that have toured across the world.

In 2006 I moved from New York City to Beirut, and worked in 2009 and 2010 as a programmer with the Abu Dhabi Film International Festival under the directorship of Peter Scarlet. In 2011, I joined TIFF as an international programmer for films from the Middle East and Africa.

Scale, audience, industry, international and regional press attendance

In general, there is wide acknowledgement that in the past decade, TIFF has been able to position itself as the most important festival in North America in terms of scale, audience, industry, international and regional press attendance, as well as volume of business transactions. And yet it is such an unlikely story: it is a non-competitive festival that bestows great prestige on the films it invites, it does not formally include a market but it is an essential venue for the industry and finally it is able to showcase with remarkable grace Oscar-winning contenders as well as the finest experimental and vanguard works.

While these elements might seem paradoxical on paper, they combine magnificently at TIFF because the festival has built on its most important asset, namely Toronto audiences and a very versatile, solid and informed programming team.

For a programmer, attending a screening in Toronto is a uniquely rewarding feat, the public is curious, informed, engaged, respectful, astoundingly diverse in terms of gender, age-group and ethnic or cultural affiliation. To the image of country, Toronto is a city of immigrants with a riveting cultural plurality or mixity, and a singular version of cosmopolitanism, unassuming, charming and interested in discovery. There are no taboos about subtitled films for instance, world cinema and non-English speaking films find genuinely a place at par with English-speaking films at TIFF.

After years of working in New York City, this is a real feat for me, as well as the films from the territories I select from. The Middle East and Africa are profoundly misrepresented in the industry and circuit, for a multitude of reasons. Especially with regards to festivals in North America, TIFF has been pivotal in its consistent and growing and thorough interest in these regions. The careers of films from these territories have benefited a great deal. Granted there is always room for improvement and keen support for it.

TIFF challenges

One of the challenges for TIFF in the coming few years will be to grow its new home, TIFF Bell Lightbox, into an even more bustling and dynamic venue for film-goers, cinephiles and the community at large. TIFF Bell Lightbox will become a prestigious address worldwide precisely because it was born from within the festival and what makes it successful: audience and programming. The screening facilities are stellar, the festival transforms it into a hub in September, but we have to nurture that energy and enthusiasm year-round.

In this age of the cineplex and marginalization of the art house, TIFF Bell Lightbox is a visionary proposal because (not unlike the festival) it is its own singular formula. There is a real opportunity to weave gradually organic bonds between audiences, critics, the industry and world and independent cinema with pointed and targeted programming during the year. There are opportunities for bridging gaps and answering needs, specifically with regards to exhibition, visibility and distribution that the festival addresses in increasingly productive ways.

There are also fantastic opportunities for education and pedagogy. The answers to the problems of film distribution in their diverse articulations stand a real chance for being deciphered and investigated in this building.

Maintain contact!

My first recommendation is for filmmakers to seek and maintain a direct contact with the programmer; the more a programmer is informed of the circumstances of production, background and stakes, the better we understand how best to present, showcase and defend the film. Conventionally, the programmer’s interlocutor is the producer, but in the Middle East and Africa, the structure of independent production is such that the filmmaker is often the producer.

Communication should start when the film is in post-production. In this forthcoming edition of the festival, there are films I have been following since they were drafts on paper and I admit that I have a deeper engagement with them. There are hundreds of very good films made every year, I can invite a mere handful to the festival’s program. The final selection is unavoidably minted as ‘the best that the region has produced,’ but the reality is slightly different.

Beyond a summary value judgment on the quality of the film, there are considerations of “fit” and how TIFF can impact positively a film’s career. These questions are negotiated between the filmmaker or producer and the programmer as trust, complicity and a genuine understanding builds. My second recommendation is for filmmakers to have very good dossiers that tell the story of the film to not only empower visibility and promotion of the film, but also inform strategy.

TIFF is a fantastic venue and filmmakers should be prepared to capitalize on what the horizons the festival opens for each film.

iW asks, ‘what are TIFF programmers “looking for?'”

If your question is philosophical, I wonder, is there a formula for magic or enchantment? Whether fictional or non-fictional, we often forget that cinema used to be called, not so long ago, “the seventh art,” and regardless of production values or reverence to codes and conventions, cinema is first and foremost the stuff of the imaginary, a film is a mirror of the world, a mirror of our being in this world, an invitation to dream, think, discover, understand.

A programmer always has the audience in the back of their mind, but with TIFF, such considerations are not constraining, at worst they represent a welcome challenge, at best they are a promise for thrill. If your question is technical, we (obviously) prefer world premieres, and with a few exceptions, we only program short films from Canada.

Some favorites

Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light” – a masterpiece. Karim Aïnouz’s “I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You.”

Toronto programmer Steve Gravestock. Image courtesy of TIFF.

Steve Gravestock, TIFF Canadian programmer

The road to TIFF

I studied English Literature and Political Science at the University of Toronto. I’ve been a freelance writer, an usher, an assistant manager in a cinema, a tele-marketer, a librarian’s assistant, a publicist, a gas station attendant and a janitor. I wrote Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture and co-edited and contributed to Toronto on Film.

The gateway that is TIFF…

TIFF is a gateway to the North American market for films made outside of the area and provides access for North American films to the international market. It’s also a great place to premiere a film since it’s one of the largest public festivals in the world and Toronto is a film-savvy and very multicultural city.

Festivals and distributors moving closer…

I think the relationships with distributors and film festivals will inevitably become closer given the issues facing the theatrical market. I think festivals will always play a key role in promoting awareness of a film and can contribute significantly to a movie’s box office and help it gain added attention which can result, hopefully, in both box office and awards.

Forget the knicknacks

Just send the film in as close to complete as you can get it. Knickknacks and pitches (either over the phone or in person) don’t really help and in some cases hurt the film. Never send in multiple copies. It’s confusing and frankly makes people think the filmmakers don’t know what they’re doing or lack confidence in the project.

Looking for a film’s “intentions…

I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I generally look for something new in terms of subject or style, and I always try to judge the film on how well it realizes its intentions. In other words, you shouldn’t dismiss a horror movie because it isn’t an intimate domestic drama. Because TIFF is a large public festival there’s room to show a wide variety of works, but obviously the emphasis is on what some might consider more serious fare.

iW asks about Steve’s recent favorites…

Last year? You mean 2010? I don’t see movies in the same way that a regular filmgoer or a critic would. Sometimes I see things two years in advance and sometimes I catch up to them a year later.

The films I was most impressed with recently were actually old by these standards: “Marie Antoinette” and “Margot at the Wedding.” There was also the Criterion Allan King boxed set which includes some of my favourite films ever made.

At TIFF: “In a Better World,” “Curling,” “Incendies,” “How to Start Your Own Country,” “Lapland Odyssey”

Outside TIFF: My son controls what I see in theatres so: “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” It was a lot better than “Chipmunks: THE Squeaquel” or “Furry Vengeance” though he seemed to enjoy those.

Thom Powers, TIFF documentary and Mavericks programmer (Powers also spearheads DOC NYC and Stranger Than Fiction in NYC)

Three films made an initial impression…

I grew up in Detroit’s suburbs. Three films that made a strong early impression on me were the documentaries “Hotel Terminus,” “Seventeen” and “28 Up.”

Toronto programmer, Thom Powers. Image courtesy of TIFF.

But as a teenager, I couldn’t see a path to the film business. I skipped college and wound up in Los Angeles editing The Comics Journal, a magazine of news and criticism that was a great education in how to advocate for an emerging art form.

Later I moved to New York and learned to apply my publishing background to film. I spent 10 years making documentaries for outlets like HBO and PBS. By 2005, I wanted a change and convinced the IFC Center to let me start the series Stranger Than Fiction where I’d show a doc every Tuesday followed by a conversation with the filmmaker. The next year TIFF was looking for a new doc programmer. I’d been going to the festival for 17 years (on and off), so I came to that job interview well prepared.

TIFF: From masters to new voices…

TIFF is where you get a full spectrum of what’s happening in world cinema from the masters to new voices. It attracts an enormous contingent of press and industry who can make a real difference for raising attention. TIFF has long played a role for launching fiction films into awards season. Now I think docs are benefiting more from that – as we saw last year with “Inside Job.”

The ever-important buyers…

In my specialty of docs, TIFF continues to be a place for filmmakers to gain the buyer’s attention. Last year saw significant sales of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” to IFC Films/Sundance Selects and “Sound of Mumbai: A Musical” to HBO. Then you have filmmakers who use TIFF to raise attention for various forms of self- distribution, like Fred Wiseman did with “Boxing Gym.”

Increasingly, more films come to TIFF with traditional distribution already in place like last year’s “Inside Job” or “Client 9.”

Getting attention…

Number one: surprise me. Show me something I haven’t seen before or told in a way I haven’t seen before.

Number two: command the big screen with the strength of your visual storytelling.

Number three: stir the emotions. Look at last year’s TIFF entries like “Armadillo,” “The Pipe,” “Windfall” and “Sound of Mumbai: A Musical” – all by directors early in their careers.

And some favorites…

I’ve already name-dropped enough TIFF titles. So far in 2011, I’ve been mightily impressed by the intensity of T”he Interrupters,” delighted by the provocations of “Kumare,” and dazzled by the history in “Cinema Kommunisto.” Of course, there are countless others. Ask me next week, you might get a different three.

[Check out Thom Powers’ take on this year’s documentary lineup at TIFF in a recent conversation with indieWIRE.]

Check out the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival lineup (so far).

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