Toronto film fest expands, promotes its brand

Sharp marketing has been a cornerstone in the rise of the Toronto International Film Festival from a mid-level alternative player to one of the major stops on the festival calendar. In the last decade alone, TIFF has evolved into a bona fide brand that would make the top brass at Coca-Cola or McDonald's proud.

Sharp marketing has been a cornerstone in the rise of the Toronto International Film Festival from a mid-level alternative player to one of the major stops on the festival calendar. In the last decade alone, TIFF has evolved into a bona fide brand that would make the top brass at Coca-Cola or McDonald’s proud.

Now the festival is turning its attention to its other properties in hopes of leveraging that marketing savvy to grow interest in such ventures as Cinematheque Ontario and TIFF’s Film Reference Library.

‘People associate us with a certain kind of cinema. Why not take that association out there and attempt to build that and create a further audience for it?’ says TIFF director Piers Handling.

TIFF, a not-for-profit organization, generates major international interest, features sold-out theatres across Toronto and attracts star power enough to clog the city’s streets for 10 days each September.

Last year, the Toronto International Film Festival Group generated $10.7 million in revenues, the bulk of which came through the festival. Contributions of several government departments make up about $1.6-million of TIFF’s approximately $10-million budget. The festival earns about $1.3 million at the box office each year, with the rest of its revenues coming from corporate sponsorship and fundraising.

Meanwhile, the Festival Group continues to create new projects outside TIFF that maintain a more populist edge. Over the last 10 years, such enterprises have had the additional effect of transforming the festival into a year-round business.

The shift began in 1990 when the Festival Group took over the Ontario Film Institute and created Cinematheque Ontario, which programs Canadian and international films all year.

The creation in the early 1990s of a Film Circuit that now goes to 90 Canadian towns showcasing world cinema, and the launch in 1997 of Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival For Children have been major steps towards that goal as well.

The Film Circuit, which programs 25% Canadian cinema, is a partnership between TIFF and local film groups in towns across the country that screen new 35mm limited-release feature films.

Handling points to the Circuit as a notable success, having generated $1 million at the box office last year by distributing Canadian films such as Last Wedding, and The Widow of St. Pierre.

Earlier this year, the festival also decided it was time to enhance the profile of such programs and hired former Salter Street Films director of sales Maureen Oxley to manage the marketing of its properties.

Going forward, Handling says, the festival is seeking partnerships with Canada’s digital channels to create TIFF-branded programming slots.

‘The digital channels are very specialized. There is a whole range of things at the festival [that] we could take to a variety of channels,’ he says, pointing to The Independent Film Channel, Bravo!, Drive-in Classics and The Documentary Channel as good fits for festival programming.

The group is also eyeing Canadian youth, a group raised on TV, video and the Internet, as it looks to solidify its future. To that end, Sprockets is only one piece of the puzzle.

‘We perceive ourselves as an educational institution,’ Handling says. ‘We’re going out into the high schools, we’re bringing busloads of kids to Sprockets, we’re providing workshops….

‘[But] maybe we have a clearer educational role to play here. How do we intervene with high schools? How do we intervene with universities and community colleges? What is the role that we as an organization can play in their reality? Can we partner with them?’

The ‘get ‘em while they’re young’ philosophy is a tried-and-true strategy of many major brands. The end goal is to create lifelong brand loyalty. But in the case of the festival the goal is twofold.

To Handling, the festival plays a significant role in nurturing Canadian cinema and generating interest among the public.

‘Canadian audiences are very alienated from their own material. They’re so used to looking at American studio films…. Canadian cinema is like a foreign-language film in your own domestic market.’

Changing this perception, he says, ‘is an educational job that needs to start with children.’

The end result will be, if all goes according to plan, a very modern brand-consumer relationship complete with successful brand extensions, cross-promotions and a viable future for TIFF.

‘We’re a very strategic-thinking organization,’ Handling says. ‘You have to constantly be either growing or certainly refining what you’re doing. You can’t stand still.’