A sanitizing worker walks up an escalator at Toronto International Film Festival's TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre on King St., in Toronto, ahead of the festival's opening night, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. If there's one thing organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival learned from last year's pandemic-tailored showcase, it's that they "have to adapt constantly," says co-head Cameron Bailey. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Safety and stars: TIFF navigates an expanded hybrid festival amid Delta concerns

TORONTO — If there’s one thing organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival learned from last year’s pandemic-tailored showcase, it’s that they “have to adapt constantly,” says co-head Cameron Bailey.

That’s held true for the 46th edition kicking off Thursday, with some border restrictions easing just days prior, a family film dropping out of the lineup, changing COVID-19 protocols and rising concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant.

Despite the spectre of Delta hanging over the fest, Bailey and co-head Joana Vicente projected optimism as they prepared to present another hybrid showcase, albeit one with more indoor venues and in-person glitz than last year.

“We’re very excited about the festival. We definitely have put safety first and it’s really been what guides us on how we plan for the festival,” Vicente said in a recent phone interview.

“Of course we are incredibly concerned about the rise of the Delta variant, but we feel that we are taking all of the measures that are necessary to provide a safe environment for our audiences, talent, industry and press.”

Those measures include a requirement that festival staff, audience members and visitors entering TIFF venues show proof they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or proof they have tested negative for COVID-19 within 48 hours beforehand.

The vaccine mandate, which does not apply to outdoor venues, was announced Aug. 23 after TIFF had previously said proof of vaccination would not be required to enter festival grounds.

Similar vaccine rules are also in place at the current Venice Film Festival and the upcoming Sundance showcase.

Canada opened its borders to non-essential visits by fully vaccinated United States citizens and permanent residents Aug. 9. On Tuesday, that was extended to fully vaccinated citizens of any country, also with no quarantine restrictions.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently told U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel” to Canada due to what the CDC called “high” levels of COVID-19 infection.

But a list of in-person festival attendees released last Thursday named many international stars, including Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch and singer Dionne Warwick, each bringing films and set to be among those honoured at a closing night awards show airing Sept. 18 on CTV.

Also attending is filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, for what TIFF calls a “mystery screening.”

Brooklyn, New York-based film critic Rendy Jones planned to cover the festival in person but was “very anxious” about it.

“There’s Delta and that’s my primary fear,” said Jones, 23.

“But at the same time, this is my livelihood. I’m one of the few people in my demographic to be doing this and this is a major step for me career-wise,” added Jones, who is Black, Gen Z, and non-binary.

Los Angeles-based film critic Yolanda Machado is accredited but said it’s too risky to fly when not all U.S. airlines support vaccine mandates.

“I’m not going to board a plane and put myself at risk and come home and bring anything to my family,” said Machado, news editor at Nerdist and freelance critic at The Wrap.

“Or even worse is to go, land and suddenly the rules change, because we don’t know — COVID is a changing thing.”

Machado said she’d like TIFF to require both proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test to catch breakthrough infections.

This year’s TIFF will have more than 100 films, up from the 60 features at last year’s scaled-down version, which was largely online with some drive-ins and a few screenings at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

New this year are satellite screenings across the country, on Sept. 13.

Stephen Chbosky’s musical feature “Dear Evan Hansen” is the opening-night film, while Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” will close the fest.

The festival is seen as a springboard to awards season, with its People’s Choice prize considered a strong indicator of what will get a best-picture Oscar nomination.

Titles poised for major attention include “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” starring Chastain as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker; “The Power of the Dog,” starring Cumberbatch as a Montana ranch owner; “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, the Princess of Wales; Cannes-winning horror “Titane”; the family drama “Belfast”; and Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneue’s sci-fi epic “Dune.”

“Clifford the Big Red Dog” was originally in the lineup but was pulled in early August after Paramount postponed its release amid Delta concerns.

A digital platform created last year helped TIFF reach audiences and professionals far and wide and will “be a part of TIFF’s future,” said Bailey.

But not all TIFF films are available online, including the buzzy “Last Night in Soho” starring Buenos Aires-born Anya Taylor-Joy, which Machado was hoping to review as part of her focus on women in film and Latinx representation.

Machado said she’s disappointed some studios aren’t offering safer viewing options to audiences.

“With the Latinx community being so affected by the pandemic, it doesn’t make sense that a movie that is starring a well-known Latina isn’t going to offer this protection to the audience,” she said.

“I understand all the filmmakers when they say they really want people to see their work on the big screen, but so many movies that are classics, no one ever got to see on the big screen and people fall in love with them on the screens that are available.”

Bailey said in some cases, film rights holders don’t want their movie available in a certain territory or might not be ready to present it online. This year, around 20 films won’t be available digitally.

“These are largely films that are making their premiere the festival,” he said. “They obviously are very valuable properties for the filmmakers and the companies that own them.”

Festival venues will operate at half capacity and forego rush ticketing, indoor lineups and food and drink sales.

However, there will be some in-person press conferences and red carpet glam, including at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall, even though the usual crowds won’t be allowed.

“We’re certainly not encouraging the kind of fan excitement that we would usually have,” Bailey said of the red carpets. “We want to do this safely.”

The organization’s year-round hub, TIFF Bell Lightbox, has been largely closed since March 2020, save for some limited-capacity screenings at last year’s festival.

Two years in a row of smaller audiences and fewer films is “definitely taking a big toll,” said Vicente, noting revenue losses include a drop in sponsorships because the pandemic cancelled the usual events and screenings. In June 2020, TIFF laid off 31 employees in response to the effects of the pandemic.

“We, of course looked at cutting expenses. But at the same time, we’ve been very fortunate to get some government support. The wage subsidy has been incredible to help us really keep staff and maintain our operations,” said Vicente.

“But we feel that we’ve done a really good job at keeping the organization afloat and preparing it for the recovery. So we’re excited to open the Lightbox at the end of the month, in September. And hope that by 2022, things start getting back to normal — whatever normal is.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press