Competition for films among Toronto’s festivals grows fierce
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Toronto’s abundance of film festivals might finally be reaching its saturation point.
With more than 70 festivals a year, the options for cinephiles of all stripes are near endless. But as the city’s two flagship festivals — TIFF and Hot Docs — continue to grow, with new homes and a demand for year-roundscreenings, they have put a competitive squeeze on the second tier, some programmers say.
“We’re so lucky to have so many festivals, but there are downfalls,” said Chris McDonald, the executive director of Hot Docs, which runs to May 6. Toronto has more film festivals than any other city in the world and is the third largest commercial market for films in North America after Los Angeles and New York, said McDonald.
There has always been friendly competition, but it has gotten fierce in recent years, according to Scott Miller Berry, executive director of Images Festival, a midsize experimental and independent film fest — the second oldest in the city — that just wrapped its 25th edition.
Berry blames the exponential growth of Hot Docs. The documentary festival had an audience of 32,000 in 2003. This year it is anticipating 160,000.
To feed that growing audience, Hot Docs has demanded more titles, which at times has meant competing with smaller festivals. Images expected to screen The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye and three other titles last year, but lost them to Hot Docs, Berry says, because of the latter festival’s policy of only showing Toronto premieres.
After a series of back-and-forth negotiations, Hot Docs held firm about the policy and Images had to give up the films and change its catalogue.
“It was very disappointing and quite shocking, in that the timing was hard,” said Berry. Critical of the policy, he feels it punishes the filmmaker because they have to choose between fests, sometimes missing an opportunity with one while holding out for another later in the year. Audiences, who get fewer opportunities to see select films, also lose, he said.
Hot Docs follows Images in the spring, so most films that play at Images are barred from screening at Hot Docs or, later in the year, at TIFF, which has a North American premiere policy.
“I guess it’s economic more than anything,” explained McDonald. “In most cases a film that has already had exposure in this market will not find an audience.” Hot Docs also puts resources such as marketing and publicity behind the films and filmmakers they bring to the event, he added.
“The Toronto scene is very competitive in terms of the number of festivals, especially the spring festival season,” said Scott Ferguson, executive director of Inside Out. The LGBT festival benefits perhaps from its spot on the calendar, soon after Hot Docs ends. Six films on its schedule this year screened previously at Hot Docs.
He says some fest-goers prefer to see films among their peers, which is why Inside Out is able to replay films that have already screened.
Toronto has the audience for its multitude of festivals — Inside Out and others have seen their attendance grow consistently in the past several years — but are there enough good movies to go around?
Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, thinks so. “As more festivals have grown in Toronto there have been more films available to all of us,” he said. With the advent of digital technologies, it’s easier to make films and there are a lot more out there, Bailey explained.
Bailey added that many festivals share programming staff. Some, who work seasonally for TIFF, work for other festivals earlier in the year.
“We share staff, we’re sharing ideas, we share programmers in some few cases as well,” he said. “So I don’t think we can afford to be too competitive with each other because we’re really all trying to do the same thing, which is to bring non-commercial, non-multiplex kinds of movies to audiences in Toronto.”
Indeed, the increase in competition calls for collaboration. Berry, of Images Festival, says that this year the programming process with Hot Docs was a lot more communicative than in the past. Hot Docs agreed to fast-track decisions on films that were submitted to both festivals.
The main benefactor of this collaboration is the Toronto filmgoer.
“The competition and cooperation between us has had a lot of impact, but one of them has certainly been on the quality of the experience. There aren’t a lot of disorganized festivals in this city,” said McDonald. “People love movies in this city and they’re great audiences. It’s that interest that has helped all of these festivals grow.”