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Toronto Film Festival Unveils Industry Programming Amid Hollywood Strikes



A long summer standoff between US writers and actors and the studios and streamers could result in fewer US films and a smaller celebrity presence at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, long seen as an awards season launchpad.

But TIFF organizers are betting their September event will provide far more value to Hollywood than just glitzy A-listers on its red carpets as they unveiled their industry programming lineup on Wednesday.

The 2023 Industry Conference, to run from Sept. 8 to 12 at the Glenn Gould Studio on Front Street, will feature six programs: the Visionaries informal conversation series presented by The News84Media; the Dialogues series of conversations with film and TV creators; Perspectives, with a spotlight on Korean diaspora creators, African cinema and another on the state of international TV series; Connections, which offers networking sessions between mid-career filmmakers and industry execs; Microsessions, or programming involving industry professionals and brand marketers associated with TIFF; and Spotlights, or a series of pitches, keynotes and speed meetings to allow industry delegates to expand their industry networks.

With far fewer US titles expected in Toronto should the dual Hollywood strikes persist, Toronto is expected to focus on centering international art-house cinema.

“Of course, the big films with exciting stars demand a lot of attention and bring a lot of excitement to the festival. But more than 70 percent of the films at the festival are actually non-American films. And these films also pack theaters here in Toronto every year within the film festival,” TIFF’s chief programming officer Anita Lee told The News84Media.

And while American stars may be essential to launching movies and TV series tied to studio contracts in Toronto, drumming up sales for acquisition titles — either in the festival lineup or outside of that — doesn’t require Hollywood celebrities on red carpets for US films screening at Roy Thomson Hall or The Princess of Wales Theater.

Sales agents just need a special screening at the Scotiabank multiplex attended by select distributors and studio and streamer execs, as evidenced by Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers last year going to Focus Features for $30 million after a private showing in Toronto.

Expect more of that this year as fest organizers lean into TIFF Industry Selects program launched in 2022. The selection of films beyond the official TIFF lineup and available for worldwide acquisition will each get an in-person screening for film buyers and industry execs.

“Those looking for distribution for their films have a place to bring them, show those films at market screenings or Industry Select screenings to drum up business at the festival, whether that’s business for completed films, unfinished films, those looking for some kind of financing — all those things fall under the industry distinction,” Geoff Macnaughton, senior director of industry and theatrical programming in Toronto, explained.

The festival will also reintroduce pitch competitions to the 2023 edition in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Bell Lightbox will open its roof top this year to more events by industry players, including national promotional agencies, to raise their profile on their own acquisition and launch titles.

And on the TV side, as Toronto responds to global industry currents beyond the Hollywood actors and writers strike, the festival will expand its Primetime sidebar, with an eye to bringing in more international broadcasters who want Toronto’s seal of approval when launching their small screen content to buyers and audiences.

“We have been looking at how we can lean into the industry and business side of the festival to really support and promote and facilitate more of this business to happen in a more efficient way. The other part is that being an international film festival, we’re not only talking about the US market, we are also talking about the international industry as well,” Macnaughton, who also programs Primetime, the festival’s showcase for prestigious international TV series, insisted.

TIFF, already a traditional gateway to North America for global film producers eyeing US distribution, is basically looking to do the same with TV series as an audience testing ground for an expanding small-screen universe. Here Toronto is also relying in part on film directors with long-established ties to the festival bringing their TV series. Those include Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boywhich became the first TV series to close TIFF in 2020, and Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom Exodus series, selected for Toronto last year after the Danish director earlier had five of his movies screen at the Canadian festival.

Toronto, already battle-tested from coming through two years of online-focused pandemic programming, may not have plans to become an official marketplace, like Cannes or Berlin, any time soon. But it has become more formal and focused this year with industry meet-ups and select venues and screenings for movie titles not in the festival lineup as it looks to draw more international star-driven titles that in recent years have got their biggest market pushes to buyers at Cannes or the American Film Market.

“We’re not necessarily looking right now at emulating a traditional market. We’re well aware that the landscape has changed. But what has become clear is the industry still sees the value of coming together, in person. If we provide even greater value from a programming perspective, and from an infrastructure perspective, that’s something people are looking for,” Lee argued.

In the wake of awards-season success for Oscar winner Parasite as well as Minari and Netflix’s Squid Gamethe Toronto premiere of Korean action star Lee Jung-jae’s directorial debut Huntand the filmmaker took part in an informal conversation with fellow Korean star Jung Woo-sung’s A Man of Reason.

Toronto fest programmers will double down on Asian cinema titles, including films from China and Japan this year, many of which eventually stream on Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms.

“This is already in many ways the direction that we were already going, and in some ways it’s getting highlighted only because of the current environment. It’s not something that we are only doing right now,” Anita Lee said, in response to the writers and actors strike.

And the labor action in Hollywood hasn’t apparently dampened industry interest in booking travel to TIFF’s industry conference, as organizers report registration for creative and business professionals is up around 10 percent year-on-year ahead of the Sept. 7 to 17 festival this year.

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