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Quest for the Fest

Interview with Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF

Piers Handling PHOTO CREDIT: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF
Piers Handling PHOTO CREDIT: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

What’s it like to be the head honcho of Toronto’s biggest, most glamorous, and most highly anticipated arts festival of the year? Holding this position for nearly twenty years now, Piers Handling oversees TIFF’s programming and multi-million-dollar operating budget. He travels far and wide to select films for both the festival and for the TIFF Bell Lightbox year-round. I was fortunate enough to speak with him about both his job and the fall festival—and he threw in an interesting little tidbit: he lives just off the Danforth, and he says it’s a wonderful neighbourhood!

How do the staff at TIFF spend the summer preparing for the Festival?

Most of TIFF’s departments start preparing for the Festival around March and are working in full swing throughout the summer. Marketing and Creative teams start rolling out promotional materials and ad campaigns, the Sales and Industry Office spearheads leading-edge industry initiatives, and the Press Office begins accrediting media from around the globe. Year-round, our programmers travel all over the world searching for the best films to showcase during the Festival.

How can audiences spend the summer preparing for the Festival?

PHOTO CREDIT: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF
PHOTO CREDIT: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

We start revealing the films confirmed to screen at the Festival in late-July and continue steadily throughout the month of August. Film fans can follow us on Twitter (@TIFF_NET) for up-to-the-minute news, or subscribe to TIFF Alerts by visiting www.tiff.net to stay on top of all the exciting announcements made about our programming throughout the summer. Ticket packages go on sale mid-summer, and even earlier for TIFF Members.

Tell us about your plans for TIFF ’13. What kind of duties will you be performing this summer, and who picks the films?

In the spring, our programmers are travelling the world, screening and choosing the best films to play at our Festival. By the time summer rolls around, we are in the thick of it—we’re still viewing films but many of them will be selected by the end of July. We’ll be working on the 11-day schedule, wrapping up meetings with movie studios and distributors, and starting to host press conferences and issue press releases. I’ll be in Cannes in May and in London, Paris, Rome, and Warsaw in June and July selecting films for the festival. There are many, many screenings here in Toronto as well and I’m in on many of these.

Many people aren’t aware of the year-round programming available at TIFF. What’s available at TIFF in the off-season?

PHOTO CREDIT: Aaron Harris, WireImage/Getty for TIFF
PHOTO CREDIT: Aaron Harris, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

TIFF Bell Lightbox is the home of all of TIFF’s existing programs as well as community and industry events. During the summer film-goers can expect to see the best of world cinema from the present and the past. TIFF Cinematheque has an international reputation, and our programming is stellar. The building is at the corner of King and John Streets in downtown Toronto, and houses five state-of-the-art cinemas which play new releases and classic films 365 days a year, two galleries (we’ve shown exhibitions on Tim Burton, Grace Kelly, and James Bond), three learning studios, a retail space, our year-round box office, TIFF’s Film Reference Library, the staff offices of TIFF, and two restaurants by Oliver & Bonacini (Canteen and Luma). We offer everything from on-stage conversations with high-profile guests to summer film camps for children and teens.

What have TIFF fans said is their favourite part of the Festival? 

Being in the audience for a film screening to the public for the very first time is a cherished experience among film fans—and last year, the Festival hosted an incredible 147 world premieres.  As a public festival we offer Toronto audiences the opportunity to see films they would never otherwise have access to and the opportunity to participate in Q&A sessions with the actors and filmmakers.

Also, catching a glimpse of their favourite stars walking the red carpet is huge draw. The festival is intense, exciting, and the city comes alive, so being a part of this atmosphere is pretty exhilarating.

How does TIFF represent Toronto’s cultural diversity and cater to Toronto’s various cultural communities?

Since our birth in 1976 as the Festival of Festivals, we have brought the world’s best films to Toronto. The organization is dedicated to presenting the best of international and Canadian cinema to film lovers and strives to transform people’s view of the world through the moving image, while leading in creative and cultural discovery around the globe. Last Festival we welcomed 372 films from over 72 countries, including Italy, Egypt, Greece, Brazil, China, Russia and Serbia to name a few. This truly is a testament to how far-reaching and inclusive our programming is—there really is something for everyone. We reflect the multi-ethnic composition of this city in a very real way.

With regard to the Danforth community, have you ever held events for Greek cinema?

In the past year, we have screened several Greek films at TIFF Bell Lightbox, including ALPS by director Yorgos Lanthimos, and years ago we curated a retrospective on the work of director Theo Angelopoulos. For the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, we’ve chosen the city of Athens as the focus of the 2013 City to City programme, which will showcase filmmakers living and working in Athens. Audiences can expect to experience the original cinema emerging from this ancient and contemporary city.

What can you tell us programming and activities at TIFF for children, youth, and families?

TIFF offers wonderful week-long summer camps for children and youth aged 8 to 17, and we offer various kinds of family programming throughout the year. Summer camps cover a wide variety of themes, from creating live-action films to animation to video game design to shooting your own music video.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Merritt, WireImage/Getty for TIFF
PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Merritt, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

Tell us about the volunteer program at TIFF and how Toronto locals can get involved.

The TIFF Festival volunteer program is among the most developed arts and cultural event-based volunteer programs in the world. It promotes volunteer opportunities that facilitate our mission to transform the way people see the world through film and engage Toronto’s diverse communities with our activities and initiatives.

In 2012, volunteers took on over 100 different roles at the Festival. Working with front-of-house staff, volunteers play a key role in festival operations and provide customer service to tens of thousands of festival-goers each year. Volunteers also work with nearly every department in a more administrative capacity.

Toronto locals can get involved by visiting our website at tiff.net/volunteer and filling out our online application, which will go live in mid-May. After applying online, they will be invited to attend an orientation session in the summer where they will receive more information about the various volunteer positions available.

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