Cancelled Ontario festivals will receive funding. But can they survive COVID-19?

With large crowds not allowed for the foreseeable future, it's unclear when Ontario festivals will be back and how they make money in the meantime.

'Potentially catastrophic': With no crowds allowed, festivals mull future

With large crowds not allowed to gather for the foreseeable future, it's unclear when Ontario festivals like Ottawa Bluesfest, pictured here, will be back and how they make needed money in the meantime. Many have already cancelled or postponed their festival for this year. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Gil Garratt doesn't know when he'll be allowed to put on a show again. That's got him worried.

He's the artistic director of the Blyth Festival; its slate of Canadian theatre brings thousands of visitors and pumps money into the tiny village, about 100 kilometres north of London. Its season has been "suspended" by COVID-19, other festivals have cancelled outright.

"What we're facing is something potentially catastrophic," he said. "I'm certain there will be festivals and there will be arts organizations that will not survive this."

With no crowds allowed for the foreseeable future, months of music, theatre, art, food and drink festivals around the province won't happen — forcing a funding gap. No tickets sold means no money coming in.

Some festivals scheduled for later in the year, like Hamilton's Supercrawl, usually held in September, are holding off on making a decision, hoping for fewer virus cases and fewer restrictions. The Shaw and Stratford festivals have both been forced to put off season openings; with Stratford's entire season "on hold" and Shaw's postponed until at least June 30.

And there are longer term issues beyond just this year, with the head of Ontario's festivals and events association saying organizers should start thinking about what the post-pandemic model for successful festivals looks like.

Artistic director Gil Garratt works on a script with Kelly McIntosh in Blyth, Ont. The festival decided to suspend its theatre season because of COVID-19, with the hope of staging something later in the year. 'The scope of the impact is enormous.' (Submitted by Blyth Festival)

The province told CBC News it will keep funding festivals in 2020 whether they happen or not through its marquee Celebrate Ontario program.

Blyth got $160,000 from the Celebrate program in 2019, and just heard they'll get funding this year too — the full list of successful festivals has yet to be made public.

But that money won't cover it all.

Not all sponsors will still donate to festivals that won't run. And many festivals can't afford to give refunds. So far, some are offering full refunds while others are encouraging patrons to push the ticket to a future instalment.

"We don't sit around with bags of cash in reserve for when we want to weather something," said Garratt.

"The fear that we have right now is we need to not think of this as a sprinting emergency. We need to think of this as a marathon. And that takes a really different kind of perspective."

Economic impact 'massive'

He's particularly concerned about the spillover. Beyond actors and playwrights, there's festival crew like carpenters, wardrobe and costume makers now out of work.

And with no theatre-goers, the village suffers too — with no one eating, drinking or shopping before a show. It's the same in Stratford, which just put its festival "on hold" for 2020.

"The wider impacts on the community are massive," said Garratt.

The province estimates for each dollar it contributes into Celebrate Ontario funding, about $21 is spent by visitors to festival communities.

What are Ontario's major festivals doing?

  • Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ont., April-November): Entire theatre season "on hold"
  • Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., April-December): Shows cancelled until June 30
  • Pride Toronto (Toronto, June): Festival weekend cancelled, working on "creative" alternative
  • Canada Day (Ottawa, July): In-person festivities cancelled, creating online show
  • Ottawa Bluesfest (Ottawa, July): Cancelled, some of lineup pushed to 2021 festival
  • Boots and Hearts (Oro-Medonte, Ont., August): Tickets still being sold, planning continues

As festivals start thinking long-term, Dave MacNeil is eager to talk shifting demographics. As head of Festivals and Events Ontario, he represents about 2,500 festivals around the province.

When they return, MacNeil thinks festivals will have a harder time getting visitors from afar — and that some people won't feel comfortable coming at all.

"It's going to be a real matter of building your community back up and getting their people out of the house."

Boots and Hearts is one of the province's largest festivals, attracting tens of thousands of country music fans to Oro-Medonte, Ont., north of Barrie. It continues to sell tickets for its August event and says it is "closely monitoring" COVID-19. (The Associated Press)

He's encouraging festivals to consider how they can re-scale what they look like post-pandemic. At first, that might mean a paired down, nimble version, only allowing smaller crowds with room for physical distancing.

Some types of festivals have been able to move online. Toronto's Hot Docs festival was supposed to start Thursday but the pandemic forced it to postpone. Instead, it's premiering some of its festival films on the CBC.

"We're gonna have to create some sort of new normal," he said. "We were one of the first [industries] to get hit and we'll be one of the last out of it."

'Waiting till the last possible moment'

Supercrawl still hopes to host its music-food-and-arts festival come September. While sharing the streets with tens of thousands right now seems unthinkable, festival director Tim Potocic remains a "crazy optimist."

"I'm waiting till the last possible moment I have to make a decision," he said, anticipating funding to come through soon. Last year, Supercrawl ended up receiving $250,000 from Celebrate Ontario, the highest amount a festival could get, after initially being denied.

Supercrawl has yet to make a call whether it will continue as planned for September. 'We’re brainstorming to see if there’s other things we can do,' says festival director Tim Potocic. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Potocic is brainstorming alternatives as well, including pushing the event to October. He's eager to get money to artists, who have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

"It's just a big question mark," said Potocic. "We're just keeping our fingers crossed."


Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.