by Daniel McIntosh
September in Toronto brings three things: back-to-school traffic, colder morning weather and the Toronto International Film Festival, the city’s annual celebration of film culture. Anyone who has ever heard of TIFF knows it’s a breeding ground for Oscar nominees, future cult classics and emerging directors, but it wasn’t always as accepted for its merits. Look back through TIFF’s origin story to find out how the plucky festival became an industry powerhouse.
TIFF began in 1976 as the brainchild of co-founders Bill Marshall and Henk van der Kolk. The two film producers shared a vision of Toronto as a film hub, detached from Hollywood and American studios that dominated the industry.
In conversation with the National Post, Van der Kolk described how the idea for the festival first came to them.
“All Bill and I wanted to make was feature films. Making a feature was a bit of an uphill battle in this country: you didn’t make feature films, you went to see American feature films," Van der Kolk said. "We needed to get noticed. How the hell do we get the world to realize we’re here, and how do we get a Canadian film industry? That’s why it started, really."
The pair, along with mutual friend Dusty Cohle, founded Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, showing films that were well-received in international circuits, in an effort to bring attention to Canada’s film scene.
The festival faced setbacks in its first year, with several Hollywood studios withdrawing their submissions, believing Canadian audiences would be too conservative for their content.
“The first year, we had a panel where the American distributors all said they would come, and they lied to us. So I put up directors’ chairs with the names of all the studio heads on them and went up and down and told them what shitheels they were,” Marshall said.
Nonetheless, the inaugural festival opened to 35 000 people, showing 140 films from 30 countries.
By the 1980s, the festival had gained notoriety in the international film community. In 1981, Chariots of Fire won the festival’s People’s Choice Award, providing fanfare that would contribute to it winning the Best Picture Oscar. The festival expanded from a simple community showing to a veritable predictor for future award seasons.
Hollywood began to take notice, and, seeing the burgeoning popularity of the festival, rethought their stance on attending the event. In 1982, Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall made appearances during a Martin Scorsese retrospective, beginning the long tradition of celebrity sightings that TIFF has become synonymous with, and marking the first major involvement of Hollywood stars in the festival’s programming.
In 1994, the name of the festival was changed to the TIFF we know and love.
Today, TIFF continues to expand its presence in Toronto and the film world, with the 2007 construction of the Bell Lightbox—a theatre, research centre and museum dedicated to film culture.
The Lightbox, located on the north corner of King and John streets, features two gallery spaces and offers screenings, lectures and workshops for budding filmmakers, viewers and fans.
The Lightbox also contains archives, a film lab centre and houses the Film Reference Library, which provides access to a comprehensive collection of film prints, scripts, periodicals and press kits surrounding the festival and film culture at large.
Despite its rocky beginnings, TIFF has become an integral part of Toronto’s culture and an esteemed event for cinema lovers all around the world. Now after its 40th anniversary, and with its own headquarters for year-round events, it shows no sign of slowing down.