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A Brief History Of The Toronto International Film Festival
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A Brief History Of The Toronto International Film Festival

Picture of Alix Hall
Updated: 23 December 2016
In the four decades since the Toronto International Film Festival, otherwise known as TIFF, was founded in 1976, it has grown by leaps and bounds to emerge as one of the most respected film festivals across the globe. As one of Canada‘s premier cultural institutions, TIFF delivers programming 365 days a year, and has firmly put Toronto on the cinematic map. Here, we take a look at the history of TIFF, more than four decades after its inaugural festival.

Early Days: ‘Festival of Festivals’

Originally dubbed the ‘Festival of Festivals,’ TIFF was founded in 1976 at the Windsor Arms Hotel. The festival began as a collection of the best flicks from film festivals around the world, and had an attendance of 35,000 in its inaugural year. The very first opening night film, Cousin Cousine (1975), screened at the Ontario Place Cinesphere.

Cousin, Cousine (1975) | © Gaumont Films
Cousin Cousine (1975) | © Gaumont Films

However, Hollywood studios were reluctant to send along submissions to TIFF because of concerns that Toronto audiences would be too ‘parochial’ for their content – reinforcing the reputation of Canadians being a collective group of goodie-two-shoes. TIFF organizers worked steadfastly at bringing the best national and international films to the festival, through consistent investment and promotion.

1994: Big Changes for TIFF

In 1994, the name ‘Festival of Festivals’ was replaced with the ‘Toronto International Film Festival.’ This name change allowed TIFF to firmly establish itself alongside other major, leading film festivals, such as Utah’s Sundance Film Festival, and the Festival de Cannes (Cannes Film Festival).

In the same year, Piers Handling took over TIFF’s helm as Director and Chief Executive Officer. Under his direction, which coincided with 1994’s rebranding, TIFF has grown both operationally and artistically, and has become an internationally renowned cultural institution. In 2014, Handling received the Order of Ontario – the province’s highest official honour.

Piers Handling and Norman Jewison onstage at TIFF Bell Lightbox | © Canadian Film Centre/Flickr
Piers Handling and Norman Jewison onstage at TIFF Bell Lightbox | © Canadian Film Centre/Flickr

The Celebrities

When TIFF hits the city each September, locals will note a sharp increase in celebrity sightings. From favourite Canadians and frequent TIFF fixtures – including Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, Atom Egoyan, and Sarah Polley, to major Hollywood stars, such as Brad Pitt, Natalie Portman, George Clooney, and Benedict Cumberbatch – TIFF is the spot to catch some of the film world’s most celebrated stars. It was in 1977, however, when TIFF (then the Festival of Festivals) had its first visit from a celebrity. That celeb? None other than original cool guy, Henry Winkler, otherwise known as ‘The Fonz.’

The TIFF Bell Lightbox

In 2007, the Festival Group began construction on TIFF Bell Lightbox, the new TIFF facility, on the corner of King and John Streets. The land was donated by the family of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. The $181 million facility is named after its founding sponsor, with additional support coming from both the Government of Ontario and Canada.

The TIFF Bell Lightbox officially opened its doors in 2010, providing extensive galleries, cinemas, archives and more. The five-storey building boasts five cinemas, two gallery spaces, film archives, a huge reference library, a film lab facility, research centre and more. Visitors will also find a gift shop, two restaurants, a lounge and café. The TIFF Bell Lightbox gave TIFF a permanent home and allows for expanding programming – TIFF delivers 365 days of events on an annual basis. From screenings and lectures, to discussions and festivals, workshops and industry support.

TIFF Bell Lightbox | Courtesy of TIFF
TIFF Bell Lightbox | Courtesy of TIFF

TIFF’s Growth

There’s no doubt that TIFF now plays a major role in Hollywood’s marketing machine. TIFF’s People’s Choice Award has become a predictor of which film will take home many of the big wins at major film awards, including the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. From Room, to the The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, and Silver Linings Playbook, TIFF’s audiences have become award-season tellers.

Room | © A24
Room | © A24

Unsurprisingly, TIFF’s revenue has grown exponentially over the festival’s history. In 2007, it was announced that TIFF generated an estimated annual impact of $67 million CAD. Just four years later, in 2011, the benefit had grown to $170 million. TIFF shows no signs of slowing down, so only expect bigger and better things to come from Toronto’s leading film organization.