Festival Programmers: TIFF

Toronto International Film Festival
August 1, 2008

Toronto International Film Festival
Thom Powers
Dates: September 4 to 13, 2008

What is your goal when programming for TIFF?
One of our goals is to represent a global spectrum. This year in my tiff doc blog I’m reaching out to representatives from as many countries as I can to have them write little capsule descriptions of what’s going on in their countries with documentaries.

We’re looking for films that hold their own on the big screen. Our docs are playing alongside some of the best cinema of the world. That sets the bar higher. It has to be stressed that there are many good docs that we let go of because they’re not the right fit for our festival.

How many docs are submitted?
I haven’t done a count this year, but I remember counting a couple years ago and it was about 500 submissions – out of which we program somewhere between 35 and 40 documentaries.

Is there any type of doc you’re not interested in?
A lot of people are attracted to documentary making because they have a strong message that they want to get out, and all those films have a place, but their place isn’t always at the Toronto film festival.

To me it’s not enough that a film is well intentioned or conveys information about a topic, because frankly most of the 500 submissions we get meet that criteria. It also has to meet some kind of skill of storytelling.

What advice would you give filmmakers submitting?
The flip answer to that question is ‘Make a great film.’ Number one, give it to us sooner rather than later. The earlier you get it to us the less stressed out we are, the more clear-headed our brains are to evaluate things.

Do your research ahead of time about what the film festival is looking for and talk to people who have shown their films with us before, whether it’s a filmmaker or a sales agent or a distributor. I would say at least half the films that I wind up showing are films that I have gotten some kind of advance notice of. Either I have a relationship with the filmmaker or someone else pointed it out to me. Someone might hear that and say, ‘Oh, it’s all an insiders’ game,’ but actually what that indicates is that if a film is going to be of the quality to show at Toronto, someone’s probably noticed it before it’s gotten to me.

That’s not to discourage people who are working independently. I used to be an independent filmmaker myself. But it’s important for people who work independently to make as many allies as they can, to make their work known to the film community. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to know the filmmakers, just one or two people who are going to help circulate the word, who are going to be ambassadors for that film.

The one thing that can’t be emphasized enough, especially for a big festival like Toronto or Sundance, is that a big part of our goal is to premiere films. That’s what makes these festivals stand out in the public’s mind. If you want to make it a priority to show at one of those festivals then you have to employ a strategy where you’re applying there first and you haven’t exposed yourself previously in the North American marketplace.

What makes this the kind of job you want to do?
I’m probably the only programmer at Toronto who’s had his own films rejected by Toronto, so I know the experience. It’s a different way of serving my great love of documentary film. Programming the films at the festival is one part of the job, another part is being an industry conduit for documentary makers in general. Even filmmakers whose work we aren’t showing I often wind up recommending to other film festivals.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.