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Q&A: TIFF CEO Piers Handling on the Film Organization’s First 40 Years

YOU’VE HEARD OF TIFF SUPER-FANS, THE CINEPHILES THAT WATCH DOZENS OF MOVIES DURING THE FESTIVAL? THEY CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE TO PIERS HANDLING. TIFF’S DIRECTOR AND CEO HAS WORKED WITH THE ORGANIZATION SINCE 1982, AND HAS ATTENDED EVERY EDITION OF TIFF SINCE IT START 40 YEARS AGO.

TIFF Piers Handling

TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling (photo: George Pimentel / WireImage Getty for TIFF)

What have been some of the most memorable moments of your career with TIFF?

Coming to the first festival was obviously very impactful for me. I was pulled by a section of new German cinema that they’d programmed. New German cinema in the ‘70s was perhaps the most important emerging national cinema in the world. So that’s what pulled me here. And the audience: I really felt like there was an audience here of people like myself, who were crazy about film, and really crazy about quality, international, foreign-language film, which was what was driving me at that point in time in my career.

I think it was probably festival four when they did a complete Godard retrospective. I sat in the Bloor Cinema for every day except for one—basically every single screening. In those days they didn’t kick you out of the theatre, so you could actually sit in the same seat, they just came around and checked your ticket. We literally sat there for five films a day, sometimes six, seeing not just Godard but also films that Godard had been influenced by or that he had influenced.

In 1984 I curated a major Canadian retrospective, which was the biggest retrospective of Canadian cinema ever assembled. It was two years of work, an immense amount of research. We’d actually started it a year earlier with a complete retrospective of David Cronenberg’s work. It was the first serious retrospective of David’s work in the country—he was well known outside of Canada, in Europe and England in particular. So that was a big deal and it was a very important moment for David to be kind of reclaimed by Canada. And that was followed a year later by the Canadian retro.

Taking over as the artistic director of the festival was a big highlight. I got to start a program called Spotlight where we chose filmmakers who weren’t really known in North America at the time. Almodovar, the Kaurismaki brothers, Kieslowski, Bela Tarr. It was nice to get all those guys and to catch them at that moment when they were fairly unknown in North America.

And 2001—how could you not remember that year? 9/11 happened in the middle of the festival. Festivals tend to look and feel the same, each has its own challenges, but when something like 9/11 comes along, you’ve never prepared for anything like that in your entire life. That was probably one of the biggest professional challenges I’ve had.

As we turned the organization into a year-round enterprise, I was very involved in bringing Cinematheque Ontario [now TIFF Cinematheque] and the Film Reference Library into the organization in 1990. That was a huge professional win and very satisfying.

And then obviously there’s the building. That was probably our most significant achievement, opening it in 2010. The lead-up to that, galvanizing the community, raising all that money, that was pretty significant.

You mentioned the 2001 festival as a specific challenge. Can you expand on that?

We didn’t know whether to continue the festival or to stop it. It was chaotic that day. We held two spur-of-the-moment press conferences. We had to come up with statements, decisions, and repercussions. I think the first decision was that we were going to cancel everything for the rest of the day. The second press conference—and we had a very small window between the two—was to decide whether we were going to cancel the rest of the festival, or if we continued the festival, what shape would it take? We decided on no red carpets, no sponsorship acknowledgements, the only introductions were just the filmmakers. We cancelled every party. And then we had to reschedule all the films that were getting cancelled that day, some of which were premieres.

We were trying to gauge the potential reaction; we weren’t sure whether we should continue, whether it was the right thing to do. So we’re listening to a lot of noise, people saying, “You should go ahead or the terrorists have won,” other people saying we needed to be respectful.

The day after, we’d moved ahead with the festival, and I went to a screening of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding at the Uptown, which was a big cinema. I didn’t know whether anyone would be there, but the place was sold out. Totally jammed. We knew then we had made the right decision. Mira was there, the entire cast was there. People wanted the festival to continue, but in a different form. It was actually quite amazing to take all the sponsorship stuff out, all the red carpets. It sort of brought us back to the first days of the festival. It reminded me so much of year one, where there was none of that stuff, no stars. Absolutely a pure festival: you just walked out with the director, did an introduction; I can’t remember if we even did Q&As.

Handling (far right) in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino (second from left) and others (photo: Nir Baraket)

Handling (far right) in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino (second from left) and others (photo: Nir Baraket)

A challenge that I imagine to be much more enjoyable is selecting the films for the festival. Can you talk about how that occurs?

Every film is different, but there’s a general way of assembling them. When I started there were no videotapes at all, so everything you were looking at was film. We’d go to New York for a day and see 16- and 35-millimeter films, that’s how you would see a lot of them. They were kind of gathered for you. Other people would send stuff up. So most of it you were programming out of other festivals. And that’s how we started: “the festival of festivals.”

When videotapes came into our lives, it suddenly became a bit different because of course there were a lot of tapes being sent to us, and the reputation of the festival had grown. We were more international and people were more aware of us, but we were also hammering on a lot of doors. We were very strong in the English-speaking world—New York, Los Angeles, Australia, the U.K. But we also had to get out in world—to places like Latin America and Asia—and very aggressively see films and make connections. Eventually the network of people you develop and the network of people who come to the festival, they see it [the festival] and they go back and talk it up.

Early on it was certainly more of a struggle to persuade the [Hollywood] studios to bring their films to a festival. They were very nervous about their films being labeled “festival films.” We slowly broke down that barrier, but it meant every year I was in L.A. for at least a week, sometimes longer, just knocking on doors. We saw every studio. We weren’t seeing films at all. It was all around meetings. And in some cases getting beaten up. It was a long, slow process.

Now I imagine it’s much more streamlined.

We’re so well connected now. I remember the first trips I took to London… A programmer had never gone to London, never gone to Paris, never gone to Rome. I remember those trips where we would just run around to screening rooms all over those cities, which is very time consuming. Now all of the films are in one place and we just go and they’re run privately for us. So all of that’s completely changed. The network’s just become so much more extensive. Now people are banging on our door to be in the festival. In the early days some people were banging on the door, but there were a lot of people who you actually had to go out and persuade.

TIFF has become one of the largest film festivals in the world, but other festivals do run nearby or concurrently on the calendar. What is TIFF doing to stand out from the crowd?

This year we’re starting two new programs—Primetime, which is getting us into long-form television, and we’re starting a small program called Platform, which is designed to put a spotlight on very strong, auteur-driven international cinema. I think that type of cinema is becoming harder and harder to advocate for in North America, and it’s been lost a little bit in the festival. We’re still a big international festival, but of course the media has shifted over the years: there’s more interest in English-language, in celebrity, in the star-driven big studio pictures. So you’re always trying to remain attuned to that.

Outside of the festival, what TIFF initiatives are you most proud of?

The children’s festival was started on my watch. [Editor’s note: Originally called Sprockets, the TIFF Kids International Film Festival occurs annual in April.] That was something where we wanted to develop a new audience, and especially one that wasn’t used to seeing foreign-language films. Kids see a lot of moving images; I felt that they should see foreign-language material, which is important for them to come to a deeper understanding of the people they were going to school with, since Toronto’s become so multicultural. So they’re getting to see what an Italian film looks like, what a Korean film looks like, what a Chinese film looks like, etc.

There’s also the Film Circuit. Getting films across Canada—we’re into about 160 centres across Canada—that’s also very stimulating. And the Film Reference Library—starting an archive was a step toward us becaming known as a serious institution. And the publications program, which I was very close to. I wish we could do more publications, but I’m very proud of that part as well.

Opening the TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2010 (photo Jag Gunda / WireImage Getty for TIFF)

Opening the TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2010 (photo Jag Gunda / WireImage Getty for TIFF)

What can we expect from TIFF going forward?

The next objective for the organization is to go global. We’ve been something of a global institution for many years: the world comes to Toronto for the 10 days of the festival. Occasionally guests from abroad would come to Cinematheque. Now people are coming to the TIFF Bell Lightbox; we’re doing more programming here that attracts international guests. But now we have to take the things we’re doing here and move them out that way. We’ve done it in spurts, but we’re going to be more assertive, more proactive.

We’re focusing on four cities: London, New York, Los Angeles and Beijing. Over the next five years we’ll continue to expand beyond those four cities. The idea is to get some form of TIFF programming into those cities on a regular basis. And it’s challenging, because each one of them is already very developed when it comes to film culture. So we’re trying to find niches. We’re looking into things like children’s programming, which we do very well. Canadian programming, too, is obviously a core pillar of what we are as an institution, so we’re trying to bring some Canadian shorts and features into those markets as well. And we’ll be taking young filmmakers there, to provide development and mentoring opportunities for them—to meet people from the industry, producers, distributors, buyers, media, etc. Basically we want to create more of a space for Canadian media in those four cities.

We also want to be very focused and specific and relevant in terms of our digital outreach strategy. We want to create some very unique content, driven by our curatorial expertise. Everyone is sort of feeling their way in this arena, but we’re getting more and more focused on what our contribution should look like—video essays, interventions. Artistically driven content. It’ll also be an extension of the actual programming, what we’re doing physically at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. So if we’re showing Bresson, Antonioni, whomever: we want to have some kind of digital extension of that. With our Cronenberg exhibition we did a virtual museum, which was very extensive, and we’ve got more plans for those types of things going forward.

Are there any best-kept TIFF secrets? Things the average person may not realize?

The audience in Toronto—it’s probably not a secret, but the reason that TIFF has been so successful is because the audience has embraced us and turned TIFF into their festival. Donors, sponsors, politicians too: even if they don’t attend, they feel that the festival and the organization are good for Toronto. And the building’s going to attract more and more attention. It’s still only five years old; the festival at five was very, very small and not too well known!

We’re doing so much educational activity, reaching out to universities, colleges, high schools, laying the groundwork for future generations of creative talent. We have no idea how those people will actually employ what they may be exposed to here—some may become producers, some directors, some may become actors, creators of content, critics, or even just educated consumers. It’s that ripple effect that I think is really terrific.

Talent Lab and Rising Stars, two initiatives out of the festival, accomplish this too. You’re getting a younger generation of people and exposing them to top-level talent at a key point in their careers, when they’re dying to meet some of the greatest filmmakers and actors in the world but they don’t know how to do it. And then suddenly we’re providing that very impactful program for 20 filmmakers from Canada and around the world, and they get to talk to… all the types of people who, when I was younger, I couldn’t even imagine myself being in a room with them. It’s that kind of—making TIFF a centre of creative activity, that’s what I’m most proud of.

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