“It’s a time to discover new talent”: TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey on organizing the city’s glitziest festival in an era of Hollywood strikes
After steering the Toronto International Film Festival through two years of Covid-19, CEO Cameron Bailey was excited to get back to the regularly scheduled program of glitz and glamour. Then came the SAG-AFTRA strike to rain all over his red carpet—or so it seemed. Ever the optimist, Bailey says that between celebrity directors and interim agreements that allow SAG-AFTRA members in indie films to promote their work, TIFF 2023 will have plenty of star power. Here, he talks about the famous faces that are still coming to Toronto, the loss of lead sponsor Bell Media and why this year may be a chance for a great festival reset.
I want to talk about all the reasons why we should still be excited about TIFF 2023. But you saw the festival through a global pandemic, and now you’re navigating the SAG-AFTRA and writers strikes, followed by the recent news that your lead sponsor is wrapping up. Has it started to feel like Cameron Bailey’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?
I wouldn’t say that. Every year, we present massive events with hundreds of thousands of attendees, and stuff happens: a pandemic, SARS—the festival was running when 9/11 happened. It’s true that the strikes have had an impact, but we are used to adapting in real time at this point, and we were actually able to put into place some of our Covid-era protocols to manage the fallout from the strikes.
What did that look like?
When we were shut down in March 2020, we started having daily meetings to ensure that everyone had the latest information and to figure out whom we needed to communicate with. We did the same thing for about two weeks after the SAG-AFTRA strike started. Early on, there was so much misinformation and partial information. I think the most important thing that I have learned in the past few years is that, when a crisis happens, it’s so important to have information that is accurate, clear and timely.
Were you ever hopeful that the strike might be resolved in time for the TIFF red carpet?
Hell yes. But, by a week and a half or two weeks in, we realized this was likely to go for quite a while. These are very complicated issues that SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP are grappling with. I’m not surprised it’s going to take some time.
Related: The president of the Writers Guild of Canada on the Hollywood writers strike
Where does that leave the TIFF red carpet?
I think it is not as bad as a lot of people think. The strike affects the films that are from the major studios and streamers represented by the AMPTP, but the vast majority of our lineup is not affected—all the international films and documentaries, independent films.
That’s good news for cinephiles. What about those who show up for the celeb sightings?
A lot of the films that are made independently ultimately get sold on to bigger companies. SAG-AFTRA members in those movies are allowed to be here based on interim agreements. We’re getting more information every day about who’s coming.
So who’s coming?
Viggo Mortensen will be here as the writer and director of The Dead Don’t Hurt. Anna Kendrick has an independent film, Woman of the Hour. Ethan Hawke directed a film, Wildcat, starring his daughter Maya, and they will both be here. Salma Hayek has produced a Mexican film called El Sabor del Navidad. There’s Michael Keaton and Patricia Arquette. And then all the international stars: Andy Lau is one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong, and he’s coming back to TIFF for the first time in two decades. Anil Kapoor from Slumdog Millionaire has a new film called Thank You for Coming.
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I remember the year when the biggest story out of TIFF was thousands of fans mobbing Brangelina’s limo. Is it possible that having some—but fewer—Hollywood types could be an opportunity for a reset?
I think so. Stars from around the world and the incredibly strong Canadian talent contingents have always been here. But it’s true that, when there are plane-loads of Hollywood stars, that can attract a lot of immediate attention. The festival is a time to discover new talent and to bring greater focus to people who have been around for a while but are having a career moment. Colman Domingo falls into that category. He’s an actor you will recognize if you watch movies and TV, but you may not have put a name to the face. He’s here in two films. One is Rustin, where he plays civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, produced by the Obamas’ company Higher Ground. And the other one is called Sing Sing, which is an incredible performance. Elliot Page stars in and is the producer on a film called Close to You, which is the story of a trans man who leaves Toronto and goes home to Cobourg, Ontario, to spend time with his family. This is a beautiful story, something that was very close to Elliot’s heart, and he’s fantastic in it.
Overall, could this be the year for CanCon to shine?
Definitely. There’s another film called Solo by Sophie Dupuis from Quebec. It’s this beautiful love story, one of the most emotional that I’ve seen all year, set in the world of Montreal drag clubs.
Obviously there’s a lot to look forward to, but surely the strike will affect the festival’s bottom line?
There is absolutely a real impact on revenue and on the corporate revenue side in particular. Some of our corporate partners are with us primarily based on the excitement generated by star presence and red carpets, so partnership revenue did decline. We’ll have a better idea of exactly how much by the end of the festival, but it’s not insignificant. We’re also aware that the strike will have an impact on our hospitality partners and all of the restaurants that see TIFF as their holiday season, so we’ll do our best to make sure that the thousands of people who are coming into the city are aware of the local establishments.
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There’s also the end of your partnership with Bell Media, TIFF’s lead sponsor for almost 30 years. That’s got to suck.
I would say this is the natural end to a partnership that was a great run for 28 years. We achieved a lot: we opened the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and more recently, during the pandemic, we launched a digital platform. It was a great partnership for us and I think beneficial on both sides, but things come to an end, and now it’s time to look for new opportunities.
Is it just the TIFF Lightbox now?
Until the end of this year, it will remain the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and then we’ll see.
Speaking of partnerships, earlier this week TIFF paused a partnership deal with Therme, the company behind the plans for a spa at Ontario Place. What happened there?
When we first started with Therme, the plans for the Ontario Place project hadn’t been announced. Now that they have, there has been a lot of debate, and we don’t think it’s our place to be in the fray. We’re pausing, we’re focusing on the festival and we’re going to revisit next year.
So the TIFF Therme Lightbox is not entirely out of the question?
I’ll leave that kind of speculation to you.
Let’s talk about the opening-night film, The Boy and the Heron.
I am beyond thrilled that we’re opening the new film by Hayao Miyazaki. He is one of cinema’s greatest artists. We’ve seen him prove that time and time again with films like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. These films are up there with the classic Disney movies, and they’re analog, they’re artisanal, they’re hand drawn. This level of artistry and craftsmanship is dying, and this may be Miyazaki’s final film. He came out of retirement to make The Boy and the Heron, and he may never make another. You’re not going to see another film like it this year—or maybe in your life.
What about the closing-night movie, Sly, a doc about Sylvester Stallone?
Of course he’s been an icon of action movies for years, but a lot of people don’t know that he sees himself primarily as a writer. He wrote his iconic position into existence: he wasn’t getting the roles he wanted, so he went out and wrote Rocky. And then Rambo—these characters that are now pillars of cinema. And yes, for all of the action-star machismo, he’s a writer, he’s a thinker, he is really interested in human nature.
And if you knock him down, he gets back up. Seems like a fitting message for TIFF 2023.
Ha, yes. He’s our icon.
You mentioned earlier that Rustin is produced by the Obamas’ company. Any chance of some Michelle-and-Barack action on the red carpet?
I can’t say anything at all about that. I do know that they are very supportive of the film.
That doesn’t sound like a no-bama.
Ha—I’m not saying anything.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.