TIFF 2017 kicks off amid some big changes

As the celebs descend, movie fans queue, autograph hounds gather and downtown Toronto gears up for another edition of TIFF, the glitzy, high-profile annual film festival is heading for a period of transition.

The Toronto International Film Festival faces disruption in its leadership and in the movie industry itself

TIFF, Toronto's glitzy, high-profile annual film festival, is heading for a period of transition. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

As the celebs descend, movie fans queue, autograph hounds gather and downtown Toronto gears up for another edition of TIFF, the glitzy, high-profile annual film festival is heading for a period of transition.

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off its 2017 edition Thursday, less than a week after its longtime head, CEO Piers Handling, announced his intention to step down after 2018.

Handling, who first joined the festival in 1982 and has been at its helm since 1994, has presided over the organization as it became one of the world's most important film festivals and opened its permanent headquarters, the $196-million TIFF Bell Lightbox, in 2010.

Piers Handling, longtime TIFF head, announced last week he will be stepping down after 2018. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

However, the non-profit festival faces potential obstacles on several fronts.

The movie screening industry overall has suffered from waning audiences, with even Canada's largest cinema chain, Cineplex, struggling with declining attendance and increasingly pursuing diversification beyond simply showing movies.

For its part, TIFF also saw a slight dip in festival attendance by about 3,000 from 2015 to 2016, while year-round attendance at the Lightbox dropped by nearly 30 per cent last year. 

In the spring, the salaries of several TIFF executives came under scrutiny with the publication of Ontario's Sunshine List of top-earning public sector employees. The festival must also deal with perennial criticism about its unwieldy size, rising ticket prices and what some see as overzealous catering to celebrities and sponsors — to the detriment of movie fans.

Survival amid disruption

Coincidentally, one of the themes that TIFF programmers noted in many of this year's films is the notion of survival amid disruption and chaos.

"Maybe it's not surprising considering the world we're living in right now. It's a very unsettled world. It's a world we're not sure about," Handling told CBC News, in an interview in late August prior to his retirement announcement.

"Everywhere, people's lives are being disrupted in a way — in surprising ways … You're in this chaotic world and you're not sure where you stand as an individual and you're looking at people who are trying to survive and make sense of that world."

Stars expected at TIFF this year include, from left, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Drake, Gael Garcia Bernal and Emma Stone. (Associated Press)

High-profile and anticipated films slated to screen at the festival this year include romantic sci-fi fable The Shape of Water, mind-bending horror tale mother!, Tragically Hip concert doc Long Time Running and The Battle of the Sexes, based on the epic, real-life tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

The stars slated to stop in Toronto during the 11-day festival, which runs until Sept. 17, include Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Idris Elba, Ellen Page, Jennifer Lawrence, Priyanka Chopra, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Emma Stone, Drake, Louis C.K. and Margot Robbie.

For their part, TIFF's programmers worked to address some of the criticism they've received. For instance, the team trimmed and tightened the overall lineup down by about 20 per cent. At the same time, female filmmakers make up one-third of this year's offerings — a record for TIFF.

Showcasing a diversity of voices — especially after the incredible success of eventual Oscar-winner Moonlight at last year's event — remains a priority, according to artistic director Cameron Bailey.

"We live in an incredibly diverse city. We are trying to reflect that diversity culturally, but in terms of gender as well, in terms of sexual orientation, in many different forms of identity. And not in a prescriptive way but in a way that is responding to the work that's being made and the power that these stories have on us," he said. 

Organizers also hope to reflect diversity in the festival's extended, cinema-related offerings beyond basic screenings, from its opening weekend street festival to musical performances (including a concert by Lady Gaga and a rap battle featuring Kid Twist, each debuting a film this year) to many events highlighting prominent speakers aimed at both the cinema industry and the public.

It's a move that TIFF is pursuing year-round as well, for instance through its regular filmmaker Q&As and successful DigiPlaySpace, an award-winning interactive exhibition for kids that it has toured internationally.

Singer Lady Gaga will debut her new documentary and perform an intimate show at TIFF this year. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

The overall goal is still to stage the best event possible, according to Handling.

"My immediate focus remains leading this wonderful organization through to the end of 2018 and ensuring that TIFF continues to inspire audiences and celebrate the riches of cinema from all over the globe," he said in a statement.

The 2017 Toronto International Film Festival officially kicks off Thursday with tennis drama Borg/McEnroe, starring Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason and Stellan Skarsgard.