TIFF’s Field of Dreams: They Built It, But Will They Come?

It appears that the executives at TIFF are surprised by how hard it is to make the TIFF Bell Lightbox a financial success. In fact, Piers Handling confesses to naively believing in the “Field of Dreams” premise (build it and they will come).

Comments on the Globe article are unsparingly direct. Taken altogether, they represent my general reaction to this “news.”

Before I commit the heresy of criticizing a cultural initiative, let me repeat the caveats that were peppered through comments on the article. I love TIFF even though I don’t participate in the festival. I think the Lightbox project was a miraculous achievement, and I applaud Handling’s entire organization for having the courage and perseverance to pull it off. The TIFF Bell Lightbox makes Toronto a better place. The spirit in which it was conceived is regrettably absent today. No one should underestimate the magnitude of this accomplishment in this time of timid parsimony.

Now that’s out of the way, let me point out some boneheaded thinking behind the trouble at TIFF:

First, all the symptoms of “edifice complex,” are evident here. Edifice complex is a disease characterized by an obsession with buildings to the neglect of other determinants of organizational success. For victims of this syndrome, building projects take on a life of their own, often to the oblivion of user wants or needs. Architectural renderings begin to have a narcotic effect, helping addicts to forget that they have programming, marketing, and development challenges that a new building will only exacerbate. In the most advanced cases, victims will be heard to cry out, “if only we had a new building, we wouldn’t HAVE a (fill in the blank) problem!”

Handling confesses to being surprised that the building didn’t vacuum people off the sidewalks of King Street and up to its cinemas. It’s as if he didn’t quite understand the marketing challenge of moving from an festival into a 365-day facility operation, requiring the marketing and provision of goods and services with which TIFF had little prior expertise. They’re smart and they’ll figure it out, and no doubt they’re right that the public is still learning how to enjoy the building, but the surprise is hard to understand, and the consequences are costly.

Festival organizations like TIFF are brilliant at solving a business problem that would drive managers batty in government and industry. They know how to operate on a shoestring all year long, accumulating resources and programming their events until, at the very last moment, they ramp up temporarily and blow all their money out the door. Then they shrink back to a subsistence level and begin the cycle again.

To a greater or lesser degree, all performing arts organizations go through this cycle. It requires nerves of steel, a constant eye on cash flow, great faith in funders, creativity and pragmatism in programming, and the discipline of delayed gratification. TIFF’s international stature has been attained in large measure on its managerial skills in this wildly eccentric annual cycle.

Now put this nomadic 11-day festival organization into a huge new building. Having programmed other people’s cinemas very occasionally, they now have five of their own to fill every day. If they don’t their ancillary revenues will suffer along with their box office sales, while their operating overheads; staffing, utilities, maintenance, cleaning, security, and debt servicing, remain constant. Why is anyone surprised that the building isn’t performing as expected for TIFF?

This plan fell on its face because of overly optimistic attendance forecasts. Here too, no one should be surprised. There is a whole set of problems including visibility, signage, programming, messaging, pricing, scheduling, and other points of audience sensitivity which can be categorically dismissed under the heading, “the customer is always wrong.” Or, as Handling delicately puts it, the TIFF brand contains a promise that he is unwilling to dilute just to populate his building. It’s only a matter of time before it dawns on him that the 11-day festival premise is totally inadequate for what is now demanded of the TIFF Bell Lightbox brand.

Setting aside the organization’s self-branding issues, there is the larger problem of a retarded Canadian cinema market. Canada produces many films that are seldom screened and remain unfamiliar to most Canadians. This is because the commercial theatre chains are controlled by American producers and distributors who are dedicated to Hollywood product. Other nations develop an appreciation through film for their own stories told in their own way, while still enjoying a steady diet of Brangelina shootemups. Italy, France, Britain, Australia, Spain, all make distinct and important films for domestic consumption. In Canada, not so much, outside of Quebec, where language and culture punch holes in the smothering blanket of American product.

Once a year, for 11 days, TIFF has been able to flush out tens of thousands of people with such an interest in film as an art form that they will pay a lot of money and join long lineups to indulge themselves. The other 354 days of the year, Toronto’s repertory and art cinemas subsist on low but stable demand for film alternatives, unable to match the marketing power of new Hollywood releases in prime locations all over the city.

TIFF’s transition to year-round programming in its own cinemas is a bold step toward cultivating a larger and more sophisticated audience for film in Toronto. However, the existence of the new cinemas isn’t going to make any difference unless the programming, marketing, and servicing of TIFF’s offerings brings new people in the door. As various commentators remarked on the Globe website, TIFF designed its building in such a way that its cinemas are recessed, their schedule and pricing are confusing, they have no marquee, and they offer a lot of retrospective, narrow interest, “film school” programming.

Put all of these complaints into “the customer is always wrong” bin, continue protecting the outmoded festival brand, and TIFF’s unhappy surprise seems less surprising. The organization is still serving its mandate admirably but is now operating an entirely different business than the one they’re best at. And in what business plan were they told they could alter the structural problems in the Canadian film market after just one year of operation?

I love TIFF but lament its obstinance in the face of clear business challenges. It makes me suspect that they failed to test their plans with objective analysis, or that they felt so confident of bailout subsidies that it just didn’t matter. Either way, all signs indicate that the surprises will keep coming until some attitudes and some practices change.

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