Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman and Theodore Melfi’s Netflix dramedy The Starling starring Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Kline are among the first announced official selections of the 46th edition of the Toronto Film Festival, which is taking place September 9-18. TIFF is getting a jump on its usual programming announcement (beginning with the fest’s Gala and Special Presentations on July 20) with this “sampling” of what is in store as the festival attempts to go back to some in-person screenings at its key venues after being largely digital in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which still is causing problems for Canada.
In addition to emphasizing the availability of the live screenings, the fest is touting the return of the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and TIFF Bell Digital Talks platforms that worked so well last year with trips to TIFF impossible for international press and filmmakers and stars.
Canada announced last week that its borders with the U.S. that were scheduled to once again open June 21 will now remain closed until July 21 (at least) as they continue to battle the effects of Covid and get the country vaccinated. To help matters, the U.S. last week donated an additional 1 million doses of the Moderna vaccine to Canada.
All theaters in Ontario (which includes capital city Toronto) remain shuttered. TIFF is clearly betting that changes as it tells the world today that its usual screening palaces — the Princess of Wales Theatre, TIFF Bell Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, and the Cinesphere Theatre at Ontario Place — will be back in action in time for the September event. That includes what they are billing as a World Exclusive Imax Special Event at the Cinesphere for Denis Villeneuve’s awaited Dune that will first be seen in Venice.
No doubt with Cannes forging ahead with a completely live return in less than two weeks, Venice promising a fully live festival for a second year in a row since Covid ravaged Italy, and Telluride throwing a party in L.A. last week to tout its return for Labor Day weekend, the powers that be at TIFF probably felt it imperative to demonstrate to the industry that they will also be in the game, even with the Canadian government restrictions and theater closures that have hampered their efforts to take its key place on the fall fest circuit and as an important awards-season stop. But they emphasize that even if, like last year, you can’t be there in person as usual, TIFF is also once again coming to you.
“We are so proud of the calibre of the films and the diversity of the stories we will be presenting this year,” said Joana Vicente, TIFF executive director and co-head. “It is so powerful to be able to share these films with festival-goers in theatres. And while the world is definitely moving towards a degree of normalcy, many of our industry and press colleagues may not be able to travel across international borders. In response, we have brought back the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform that will host Press & Industry screenings, the Industry Conference, press conferences, as well as the TIFF Industry Selects market. We believe that digital access is an important part of providing accessibility to audiences and will be vital to the future of film festivals. This inclusivity across all our offerings helps to ensure that, no matter where you are located, you can participate in the festival.”
“It’s been a tough year and we’re so glad to be back,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director and co-head. “We’re thrilled to be presenting the latest by Alison Klayman, Edgar Wright, Philip Noyce, Kenneth Branagh and many more to audiences in our Toronto cinemas, and to Canadians all across the country at home. We can’t wait for September. We’re also honoured to introduce the world to outstanding Canadian debuts such as Eric Warin and Tahir Rana’s Charlotte and Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders. We’ve been inspired by the quality, range and diversity of the films we’re inviting, and we couldn’t wait to give everyone an early glimpse.”
Branagh’s black-and-white, 1969-set film Belfast is a personal project for him and an awards hopeful for Focus Features. It stars Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, Judy Dench and breakout newcomer Jude Hill in the coming-of-age story set against the troubles in Northern Ireland. McCarthy delivers another dramatic turn in The Starling, in which she plays a woman recovering from a family tragedy when a starling bird invades her life. Kline plays a veterinarian who helps her, and Chris O’Dowd is her husband. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) toplines Wright’s 1960s-set time-travel drama Last Night In Soho, which like Belfast also comes from Focus. Petite Maman is the first directorial effort for Sciamma since achieving acclaim for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which played TIFF in 2019. Philip Noyce’s latest thriller Lakewood with Naomi Watts is also in the lineup. Two documentaries on musical icons — HBO’s Alanis Morissette docu Jagged and Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over — are also included, in addition to the aforementioned homegrown films Charlotte and Night Raiders.
As for being ready to launch in September, the fest is assuring potential attendees the Covid outlook, which has been especially difficult in Canada, is looking much brighter despite the recent border closure extensions.
“We are confident in our planning for a return to in-person screenings as part of TIFF as both the province and country accelerate vaccination rollout,” said Dr. Peter Nord, Chief Medical Officer, Medcan, and TIFF’s consultative partner on health and safety for the pandemic. “Canada’s first-dose immunization rate has surpassed the U.S., and recently reached the best rates in the world. As of today in Toronto, more than 75% of adults have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and 25% have received their second dose. We fully anticipate that by the time the festival arrives, all Ontarians will have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. Public health indicators, such as hospitalizations, ICU occupancy, and case rates indicate that we’re on the right — and safe —path to fully reopening. In addition, audiences will confidently be able to enjoy in-cinema screenings by maintaining a safe physical distance and wearing a mask.”
Today’s release further emphasized health measures being taken, noting that TIFF continues to work closely with the Province of Ontario, the City of Toronto and public health officials on the safe execution of the festival, with its No. 1 priority the health and well-being of both festival filmgoers and residents. Based on the provincial government’s recently announced reopening plan, TIFF is planning to operate at a higher capacity for indoor theaters by September, likely with mandatory mask usage for festival-goers. TIFF said it has again partnered with Medcan.
New this year, audiences across Canada can enjoy the festival in their own communities with TIFF’s “Coast-to-Coast Screenings.” Film Circuit, TIFF’s film-outreach program since 1995, will host in-cinema screenings in select locations across the country for one evening in each location, to help ignite theatrical exhibition across Canada and celebrate audiences’ return to theaters. Locations and films to be announced at a later date.
“TIFF remains a must-attend festival,” said Vicente. “Last year’s industry offerings led to a record-breaking year in film sales, new highs in conference attendance, the introduction of TIFF’s pass-gifting initiative for underrepresented voices, gender parity across all industry programming streams, and TIFF’s curated Industry Selects film program devoted to international sales titles. Our commitment to diverse voices, to removing all barriers for their work to be seen, to creating an accessible space for business, and to sharing creators’ stories is in our DNA. In 2021, TIFF is ensuring every initiative and event will have diversity, equity, and inclusion woven into its implementation.”
Press accreditation is now in progress, while industry registration will open Friday. Updates on various aspects of the festival, announcements of the individual screening programs, and more info on access to in-person screenings for press and industry will be given in late July as government plans for reopening the city and the country are finalized. The festival expects to announce roughly 100 films that will participate this year in the various sections.