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Cameron Bailey’s Guide To A Successful Film Festival

On the sidelines of the first edition of International Film Festival & Awards-Macao, we caught up with Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, to talk about the business of film festivals and more

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December 23, 2016 | 11:12 AM

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Secret to a Successful International Film Festival

It takes time, in any location. For us (Toronto International Film Festival), the context is commercial entertainment. Most people in many part of the world go out to see commercial movies all the time. They have been trained to watch movies in a certain way and expect a few things. But the movies that are shown in film festivals are very different from that. They offer a different kind of pleasure which takes time to cultivate in a place.

In the first couple of years, the Busan Film Festival had a very grassroots appeal. There was no red carpet. It wasn’t about the glitz and glamour. But now, they’re huge. They started with the love of cinema and I think that’s really the key to a strong festival.

We were lucky in Toronto. When the festival started in 1976, there was already a significant cinema going culture that was looking for things beyond the mainstream. There was a generation that had gone through the European arthouse cinema in the 1960s and 70s. As we started, we began to amplify that tasted in the Toronto audience and we grew up alongside. And now there is significant size who actively seek out cinema beyond the mainstream. But that took decades to build and it doesn’t exist in every place.

It’s kind of a training, cultural education that I think is necessary. Film Festivals only happen typically once a year, so people have to do other things – seeking movies online now is the easiest way.

One of the recent festivals that I admire is Busan Film Festival. In the first couple of years, they had a very grassroots appeal. The theatres were full of young people, film and art students who were really excited to see new movies. There was no red carpet. It wasn’t about the glitz and glamour. It had limited media coverage. But now, they’re huge. They have the massive Busan cinema centre, red carpets, media, etc. They started with the love of cinema and I think that’s really the key to a strong festival.

Creating An Identity for a Film Festival

I think festivals need identity but that also can be a matter of time. Sometimes, you can start with one and evolve over time. And your identity, depends partly on the scale of the festival. So like a large festival like ours, Berlin, etc. it’s easier to have multiple identities. We can show massive red carpet movies that are quite commercial. We premiered The Martian last year and we can also show films of niche arthouse directors like Joao Pedro Rodrigues. But for instance, festivals that are mid-level in size like Rotterdam, Sundance, they can carve out a strong identity for International independent cinema. It helps to have a clear identity for a festival. And then to pursue that.

Film Festival Being the Best Friend of a Filmmaker

Film festivals can be the best friends and biggest assets for filmmakers but they can also disappoint. It depends on your expectations and what the festival offers. But I think there is an opportunity there for filmmakers if they can take advantage of it and keep going with their eyes open.

The caveats are there because not all film festivals offer filmmakers the same thing. If you’re going to a festival to sell your film, there are a handful of them where that’s a viable possibility. Many don’t have significant markets and some have a lot.

For example, in Cannes and Hong Kong, a lot of sales do happen, but in many cases buyers just won’t see your film. It’s the same with media. If you want to go to a festival to get media coverage and launch your film into the press, that works very well at some and less so at others.

Crucial Stages of Filmmaking

I think when you’re raising the money to make a film you need a team and a clear sense of what you want to achieve. Once you raise the money and you’re developing the film it’s important too. The same goes for launching and marketing of the film. And I don’t think filmmakers can afford to neglect any one of those stages, including the festival stage. So often early in their careers, they aren’t aware of that but it’s essential that they learn how to promote their films; not just their current but also lay the foundation of future projects. Film Festivals are very good for that.

On Film Festivals maintaining interest for the whole year

Festivals like ours have year round activities that keep them going and relevant. If you just come about annually then it is more of a challenge. You can never stand still in this business. I try to respond to whatever currents are changing and flowing in the world around me and that takes many forms. Toronto is being shaped enormously by migration from other parts of the world. This also reflects on who we are and what our audience wants; but then I travel as much as possible and see what’s happening.

Right now, in Light Box we have cinema perspectives going on, we are also starting a Star Trek series, there’s Moonlight and we’ve got a Japanese animation film up next. In that sense, it’s a real mix but it’s a response to our audience in the city and what’s going on globally in terms of cinema at the same time.