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TIFF 2020: Scaled back, but more accessible than ever

A look at the structure and most anticipated films of the festival, running from September 10–19
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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a world-renowned staple of Toronto’s arts and culture scene, and a major stimulus to its economy, featuring a sprawling week of premieres and advanced showings of hundreds of films.

It shouldn’t be surprising that things are going to be very different this year due to the pandemic, but it’s not all bad: TIFF 2020 might be the most accessible year yet for the ‘festival of festivals.’

Adjusting to the pandemic

The scale of the festival has been significantly reined in. While last year’s lineup had 250 feature films, this year has only 50. As a byproduct of that and other circumstances, there probably won’t be as many highly-anticipated award magnets or blockbuster hits like 2019’s Parasite or Knives Out.

As multiplexes struggle for survival, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, out of which the festival runs, will be the only indoor theatre showing films. The arrangement of how festival-goers will actually be watching films is the most striking change for this year. It is split between the Lightbox, open-air theatres, drive-ins, and digital screenings.

If you decide to go to a movie at the Lightbox, you’ll have an assigned seat distanced away from other patrons, given an Ontario government mandate that venues can sit, at most, 50 people per theatre. Whenever you’re not sitting down, relishing in the novelty of going to a theatre, you’ll have to wear a mask.

If you’re comfortable with the risk, it’ll probably be a cozy experience; that’s if you manage to get a ticket. They sold like wildfire, and, at the time of publication, there are no more available tickets to screenings at the Lightbox.

More hopeful alternatives are the new outside venues: there are two drive-ins, where you pay by the car and watch the big screen from the safety and comfort of your vehicle. There’s also one open-air theatre, much like a drive-in but where you’re allocated a so-called ‘lawn pod’ for two to set up camp in.

It may not fully immerse you into a movie, but given that COVID-19 can potentially be transmitted while in close contact with other people, outside settings like this provide a balance of assured safety and the experience of watching a big screen with others.

The most significant new venue is what TIFF has dubbed the “Digital Cinema.” Even though its existence may not be surprising, it’s still a game-changer. Every film and short program will be available for an interval of 24 hours through the service’s website to anyone in Canada. No more waiting in lines or even leaving your home!

These digital screenings are not free, nor are there student discounts to anything at the festival; their prices are consistent with normal in-person screenings. However, there’s nothing to stop multiple people from watching a digital screening with a single ticket. Technically, it would make watching TIFF movies far less expensive the more people are involved.

Due to demands from distributors, there are still caps on ticket capacity for these home screenings. Buying far in advance gives you the best chance of securing tickets, but, at the time of this writing, most of the biggest films still have many tickets left.

This exact digital system is not unique to TIFF. For one, it was used at the Fantasia Festival in August. Daniel Azbel, a friend of mine who virtually attended a few screenings, wrote to me saying that the films “[play] quite smoothly,” aside from some quality loss and technical quirks, which should be avoidable given the asynchronous nature of this year’s screenings.

Recommendations for this year

Looking for movie recommendations? Picking between even 50 films might still be overwhelming, so here are a few picks.

One Night in Miami is the directorial debut of Regina King, who’s coming off winning an Academy Award last year and starring in HBO’s fantastic Watchmen series. The film follows a fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali, among others. It’s got a great cast and sounds both potent and entertaining.

MLK/FBI is a documentary by Sam Pollard covering information drawn from newly declassified documents about the J. Edgar Hoover administration’s “interference and harassment” of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a fascinating subject that Pollard seems poised to tackle.

Shiva Baby comes out of the more under-the-radar Discovery program. It tracks a young Jewish woman through a series of uncomfortable encounters at a shiva, where her “steamy secrets” are laid bare. It sounds relatively light and fun, and if anything, it uses an under-done setting.

Another Round is directed by celebrated Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg and stars Mads Mikkelsen. It’s about a group of friends who embark on a quest to maintain a mild level of intoxication for a whole day. One can only assume it’ll be very entertaining and then it’ll get sad —  the recipe for a great film.

Watching a movie on your computer or TV, as most festival-goers will end up doing, is not the same as sitting in a theatre. But, all the same, this is a very rare opportunity to ‘attend’ a film festival without almost any of the inconvenience attached. It’s one that might not come again for another 100 years — and who knows where we’ll be then?