September 3, 2010 / 3:08 AM / 8 years ago

Toronto film fest boss stays cool under pressure

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - The famously unflappable Cameron Bailey is looking a touch puzzled, and has for weeks.

The Toronto International Film Festival co-director is standing in his Carlton Street office, studying a giant film schedule as if it were an abstract gallery painting.

Toronto might land the cream of the crop of studio awards players and indie acquisition titles, but Bailey and his team have wrestled for weeks with how to schedule 247 star-driven films — 112 of them world premieres — over an 11-day movie marathon beginning September 9.

Bailey tilts his head from side to side to make sure he sees each film’s possible permutations: dates, running times, age ratings, Hollywood star power (and the circus that goes with it), house sizes.

It’s a film festival chess board for one of the world’s most well-attended events, and Bailey and his team are attempting to think five steps ahead.

His dedicated assistants scribble on pads in an effort to help him resolve an immediate challenge: Removing a third public screening for a U.S. indie drama, and adding one more for a star-driven Midnight Madness title.

“Can we do a clean switch?” he asks.

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, an aide offers the unfortunate reality: Not at this hour.

It’s crunch time. Toronto’s final movie lineup is hours away from going online — along with news of another 102 studio and indie titles — to be picked up by news outlets worldwide.

What’s more, the festival catalog — 300 pages by 18 writers — is hot off the presses, the TIFF box office will start selling tickets the next day at 7 a.m. and Toronto is set to showcase Bell Lightbox, its new year-round headquarters that has been in the works for eight years at a cost of almost $200 million.

So how does the man at the center of the storm deal with the pressure? For Bailey the answer is simple: Smile and don’t panic.

Spend even a short amount of time with Bailey and it becomes abundantly clear that his preternatural calm is a key to his success. As the pressure mounts, Bailey somehow manages to become increasingly focused yet remain totally at ease. And he does it all with an ever-present smile that is the perfect counterpoint to the barely contained chaos swirling all around him.

Still staring at the imposing schedule from behind his desk, the 46-year-old Bailey is silent for what feels like an eternity. Everyone in the room simply waits.

“What would it be up against at 2 p.m.?” he finally asks.

Turns out the movie has a clear shot at the buyers of another U.S. indie also being shopped in Toronto that won’t screen for press and industry until late afternoon.

“As long as we go Sunday, midmorning, they’re fine,” he says, careful not to leave a Hollywood titan’s nose out of joint.

Finally, Bailey leans forward like a poker player who senses a winning hand and e-mails the U.S. sales agent two options for a new screening.

“It’s tricky,” he says with his trademark grin. “As soon as anyone knows the first inkling about where and when they might be scheduled, they become very attached to it, however tentative we are.”

Bailey has much to smile about these days. When festival programing head Piers Handling offered him the job of co-director two years ago, he was coming off a long apprenticeship at TIFF while simultaneously trying his hand at a variety of other disciplines. In addition to programing Canadian titles in Toronto during the 1990s, Bailey also worked as a film critic, a broadcaster and a screenwriter on the 1997 film “The Planet of Junior Brown,” directed by Clement Virgo. He even tried his hand at filmmaking with the video essay “Hotel Saudade,” which bowed at Toronto in 2004.

“None of the jobs provided enough for me to live on,” he says with a shrug while en route to Bell Lightbox.

He shudders now as he remembers the day Handling offered him a fest programer job in 1989.

“I said no. I really didn’t think I was qualified. I was really young,” he recalls.

Eight years later Handling would offer him the fest director position, but this time he accepted, driven by one of his passions: Supporting indie titles he felt needed to reach a global audience.

The vehicle he would use to attain that dream was Planet Africa, a showcase of films from Africa and the African diaspora that Bailey first launched in 1995.

Two years later, he was on hand one late night at the Bellair Cafe in Yorkville when in walked Harvey Weinstein. With a fat cigar in hand, the then-Miramax boss made a bee-line for Christopher Scott Cherot, a young director whose quirky debut had recently screened in the Planet Africa sidebar.

“Weinstein had his arm round Cherot, who came back with a big smile on his face,” Bailey recounts. Before the night was over, Miramax had acquired Cherot’s low-budget romantic comedy “Hav Plenty” for a reported $1.5 million.

“Those kind of deals don’t get made anymore,” Bailey sighs.

To be sure, however, Toronto remains a juggernaut. Hollywood A-listers will descend on the festival and footage will end up on TV screens and newspapers worldwide.

But as a place to do business, TIFF has seen better days. Asked whether Toronto will see a repeat of last year, when a slew of acquisition titles came into Toronto and went home empty-handed, Bailey, in typical fashion, isn’t tipping his hand.

“It might be a little quicker this year, or that may just be the new reality. It’s hard to say,” he ventures.

To be fair, Bailey’s tenure began just as the 2008 financial meltdown ushered in a new era of austerity within the global film community, forcing studios and indie producers to cut back on travel and party budgets.

“All of the studios have felt the need to contract what they spend on promotion, prints and advertising,” he says. “That hasn’t affected us so much. People still see us as an important launch pad.”

While that might be true for well-funded, star-driven releases, Bailey concedes that government cutbacks for certain national cinemas have impacted the number of films Toronto programmers received this year.

“We have found the economy maybe gives us fewer films in some cases from certain countries, as their economies shrink, and also smaller budget films in some cases as well,” he says.

On his ascension to the top at TIFF, Bailey inherited other challenges, including a need to close a funding gap to launch Bell Lightbox, which saw Initial construction costs of $120 million balloon to $196 million.

Pulling up to the new structure, Bailey leaves his taxi on King Street to greet his programing team, which is assembled inside for a pre-festival tour.

He takes a moment to look up and down the bustling street at adjoining restaurants, shops and theaters, all of which expect Bell Lightbox to become a lucrative entertainment destination for the locals.

Once inside, Bailey scans the year-round headquarters’ five stories, which until recently remained hidden behind boarding and scaffolding.

“We can enter from the back of the stage,” Bailey says minutes later, standing in a 550-seat theater, looking to shepherd nervous filmmakers and preening stars from the green room to be introduced to appreciative Toronto audiences.

He leads his beaming, enthusiastic programmers through four more theaters which will soon screen a host of arthouse films and new prints of classics like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”

His interaction with everyone is effortless and effective. He has a knack for making other people feel relaxed and good about themselves, and does so with the air of a career diplomat.

It’s how he controls the conversation when talking to the media, festival donors or staff.

“You’re screening one of your films in here,” he asks a programer in a smaller, 80-seat theater.

He moves from programer to programer, encouraging, advising with small tips. Always smiling.

Back on the street in front of Bell Lightbox, Bailey is aware that much is riding on the new structure. He also knows that if it doesn’t work, he’ll likely take the heat.

But again, you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Certain that TIFF’s new home will provide a long-sought hub for the festival, he appears equally thrilled with idea that it will contribute something to the city itself.

“The new thing this year is the festival neighborhood, the fact that we will be in our own building, with a new hotel next door, with all the press conferences there,” he says proudly as he gazes up at the building. “People will bump into each other in a way that they haven’t been able to for a long time.”

He looks like the happiest man in Toronto.

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