Experiential Programming through Virtual and Hybrid Events

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Here’s how the Toronto International Film Festival navigated through the 2021 season.

Virtual events came of age in 2020 and 2021. More and more businesses began hosting events and meetings through digital means when meeting in person was no longer an option. Virtual events allowed for people to connect with each other without compromising health and safety – a welcome solution during a time of great uncertainty. But as creative as event planners got, going virtual wasn’t always a perfect solution. Especially for events that relied on live interactions to generate street-level buzz and excitement.

The Toronto International Film Festival, considered one of the big five film festivals alongside greats like Cannes and Venice, began on Thursday, September the 9th, and runs through to September 18th. There’s no question that people have missed live theatre and in-person cinema, so it was encouraging to see a few happy cinephiles and industry professionals gain access to a small selection of in-person screenings at this year’s festival. However, there’s no disputing that a majority of what was showcased was on-line, making the 2021 festival a great example of a Hybrid event model merging both physical and online components.

Health and safety precautions are firmly in place.

To ensure a safe environment for all attendees, TIFF implemented strict health and safety measures. Audiences, festival staff, and all other visitors entering the TIFF venues had to provide proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test 48 hours before they arrived at the festival. Additionally, out-of-country visitors had to be tested 72 hours prior to arriving in Toronto. With the threat of the Delta variant looming, festival organizers were following the strictest of government guidelines. Masks were required for anyone attending any in-person screening, talent was also required to wear masks except during onstage appearances and on the red carpet where mandated social distancing measures were followed.

No printed tickets, rush ticketing or line ups in sight.

All ticketing was executed digitally, meaning that there are no printed tickets, rush ticketing, or lineups at any of the festival venues. Entry to any venue for in-person events are being processed through a mobile ticket agent. Streets remained largely empty and free of crowds fighting for space in front of the velvet ropes. People that once flocked Toronto streets in hopes of spotting a celebrity were scarce as the general public was encouraged to stay away from the entertainment district unless they were attending an event.

Very few live, in person events.

The outdoor screenings continue to take take place at venues in the Ontario Place Festival Village which includes the Visa Skyline Drive-In, RBC Lakeside Drive-In, and the West Island Open Air Cinema. These venues are operating at half capacity with up to 1000 people permitted. Except for the drive-ins, there are no concessions being sold at the indoor festival venues. In-person press conferences and red carpets have been relegated to the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thompson Hall, but crowds are prohibited.

This year, more than 100 films will be featured, which is certainly more than the 60 featured the prior year. The 2021 festival was largely online with minimal screenings and very few drive-ins. But despite the increase in films featured this year, the festival is still operating at roughly half the number of features showcased in a non-COVID year. Sadly, smaller audiences and fewer films two years in a row have resulted in significant revenue losses and a drop in sponsorships leading some people to question whether a hybrid festival is a sustainable option for the future.

There is an upside to the hybrid event model.

Building off 2020’s hybrid festival, TIFF has provided a larger selection of online screenings to the general public in Canada in 2021. Digital screenings are accessible for either $19 or $26 CAD and each film has a scheduled date and start time. Online access has given people who haven’t previously attended the festival, an opportunity to participate in the event from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Anyone who rents a film to watch at home has a 4-hour window to start and finish it.

Also new this year, TIFF introduced satellite screenings in five different cities across Canada. TIFF’s film outreach program Film Circuit is hosting screenings in-cinema by partnering with Cineplex. These screenings were designed to celebrate people’s return to theatres and give Canadians who do not have the opportunity to visit Toronto for the festival to participate from where they are. The cities hosting the satellite screenings include Montreal, Moose Jaw, Markham, Collingwood, and Saint John. The screenings ran on September 12th and 13th.

The options for people outside of Canada are a bit more limited but TIFF has made an extra effort to provide some new experiences through TIFF Bell Digital Talks, available worldwide. For TIFF members, the Bell Digital Talks are free to access. Non-members can pay a small $12 fee to gain access. Stars like Benedict Cumberbatch, who is featured in two films at this year’s festival, The Electric Life of Louis Wain and The Power of the Dog, has been featured in the discussions. Steven Yuen starring in The Humans¸ and Kristen Stewart who took on the role of Princess Diana in Spencer is also participating.

The festival remains highly accessible for accredited press and industry persons. Passholders can gain access to digital talks and more, as well as the TIFF Digital Pro platform which is hosting press conferences, the TIFF Industry Selects market, and press screenings.

No event is perfect, of course. And that certainly applies to the virtual world, as well. Event organizers had to work through some technical problems as this year’s fesitval got started, with some viewers complaining that the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro was unable to play films properly.

In addition, films The Power of the Dog featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and The Guilty starring Jake Gyllenhaal were leaked online after debuting on the TIFF digital platform. Both movies were screened online and in theatres last weekend. Despite all sorts of modern-day safeguards, piracy concerns remain an issue in the industry, regardless of event format.

And then there’s the usual angst over the festival’s highest-profile films, like the highly anticipated Dune or Dear Evan Hansen, and international entries like Memoria and The Worst Person in the World not being available on the digital site. But isn’t the whole allure of TIFF just a little wrapped up in its inaccessibility? In having to wait “just a little bit longer” to see those really big pictures?

The last two years have certainly taken a toll on high profile festival events like TIFF, but no one can argue that its organizers have poured their usual heart and soul into these big shows. Without their passion, dedication, and careful planning, it would have been impossible to keep the spotlight shining.

Will the hybrid event experience live on through the 2022 festival season? I’d like to think it will. But maybe with a little more on the ground, real life excitement. Access to films online for more people across all of Canada is great. But catching a glimpse of a real-life red carpet from across that velvet rope, with all your friends by your side… well, that’s just magic. And giving up a little access for magic might be okay.

Are you interested in evolving your existing event strategy? Reach out to discuss options and opportunities for virtual and hybrid events.

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