The steroidal growth of Montreal's festivals, in charts

The city is famous for its celebrations, but it has global competition.

The city is famous for its celebrations, but it has global competition

If it seems like every year the city gains another festivity, that's because they are blossoming. (CBC)

Montreal is a city of festivals. Few cities have a large downtown plaza devoted to back-to-back summer celebrations.

And if it seems like every year the city gains another festivity, that's because they are blossoming. 

"In the last 10 years or so, festivals have become a social phenomenon worldwide," said Martin Roy, president of  Festivals and Major Events (FAME), a lobby group for Quebec's largest festivals, including Jazz Festival, Just for Laughs, and Osheaga.

You can thank the younger generation for that.

"Millennials are very interested by festivals," he added. "And urban tourism is getting bigger. It's also a business phenomenon."

As the summer festival season draws to a close, CBC News polled 25 of the city's biggest festivals for their historic attendance numbers. Fifteen of them responded.

The numbers show steady growth, not only with crowds, but with new festivals.

Here's what we learned.

(Darcy Hunter/CBC)


Jazz Fest: the challenge of measuring a monster

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is the city's biggest and most famous public event. In its 38-year history it has grown from a cozy event with 12,000 spectators to a mega-event that draws millions to Place des Arts.

Counting the number of people who show up at the festival site over 10 days is no easy task, as there are no turnstiles or ticket sales for the popular outdoor shows. Over the years, Groupe Spectra, which organizes the festival, commissioned audience counts from different firms.

One of them is CROP, a polling firm that estimates crowds based on telephone surveys every three years. These are published in promotional materials by organizations like Tourisme Montréal.

But these numbers come with big caveats. Since surveys aren't done every year, the CBC filled in the gaps with estimates. And Spectra itself urges people not to read too much from the numbers.

"The methodologies have changed over time, so we cannot directly compare the years," said Spectra's Greg Kitzler.

Smaller festivals: the long tail

Because the big outdoor festivals like Jazz Fest and Just for Laughs draw such huge crowds, they dwarf the smaller indoor ones. Here's a closer look at those.

(Darcy Hunter/CBC)


FTA: The impact of a hit number

The Festival TransAmériques, a 10-year old dance and theatre festival, drew between 22,000 and 35,000 in its first years, modest numbers for a fairly niche festival. 
Montreal choreographer Sylvain Émard brought together 200 amateur dancers for the 211 performance of Le Continental XL during the FTA festival. (Jennifer Chen)

But in 2011, crowds more than doubled to over 55,000 thanks to one show: Le Continental XL by Sylvain Émard Danse, which featured some 200 amateur dancers performing at Place des Festivals. 

This year, to mark the festival's 10th anniversary and Montreal's 375th, the dance troupe will supersize the show with 375 dancers. The effect on the crowd size will be seen this September.

Nuits d'Afrique: from niche to major

You learn about Nuit d'Afrique's humble beginnings in 1987 by passing by its first venue, a small live music dive on St-Laurent Boulevard called Club Balattou where 100 people is a stuffy crowd. For its maiden edition, 1,500 people showed up.

Twenty-three years later, the attendance grew 44 times to 66,000.

Organizers only had attendance numbers for a few key years, but shared major milestones in the festival's history that explain its steroidal growth.

Little by little, the festival added more venues and increased the duration of the outdoor shows from one to six today (its total duration has always been 13 days).

The move in 2011 to its current home at Place des Festivals is what supercharged it. In 2014, the latest year available, it passed half a million participants.

(Darcy Hunter/CBC)


MUTEK and RIDM: what a difference a venue makes

The Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal (RIDM), a documentary film festival, also shows how a change in venue can have a major impact on attendance. In 2013, the crowd nearly doubled when outdoor installations were added for the first time, according to executive director Mara Gourd-Mercado.

Similarly, electronic music and digital arts festival MUTEK felt a big bump in 2012 when it expanded from the SAT to a second venue at the Centre Phi in Old Montreal, and then again in 2015 when it took over the Musée d'art contemporain.

Fantasia: more than an Asian flick fest

When it debuted in 1996, the Fantasia International Film Festival had a tiny budget of $80,000 and was little more than a showcase of Asian and anime films. Nonetheless, it drew a crowd of 50,000 and never dropped below that, according to founder Pierre Corbeil. 
Actor Mark Hamill, best known as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, is one of many major movie names who came to Montreal for the Fantasia Film Festival. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Since 2012, it's held a steady 100,000 participants, and is now one of the main "genre film" (industry speak for science-fiction, fantasy and horror) festivals in North America. But it's grown into a trade event, where the brass from big distributors like Netflix and Amazon discover new cinematic talent.

"In the last three, four years it's become an industry gathering," Corbeil said.

Montreal can't rest on its laurels

FAME claims Montreal needs to compete better with other cities known for their celebrations. Every year, Roy said, large festivals struggle to gather enough money from government and corporate sources.

"There's international competition. There's technology and security concerns. These are big challenges," he said.

But audiences aren't happy with the same formula every year, so there's also the pressure to bring fresh ideas.

"We can't be on auto pilot," Roy added.

According to data from the World Cities Culture Forum, Montreal hosts 144 festivals, excluding small events managed by boroughs. This is about average compared to other major cities.