Sharing Her Journey

An interview with Joana Vicente, Executive Director and Co-Head of TIFF

Shortly after last year’s festival, Joana Vicente took the reins as TIFF’s executive director and co-head, working alongside artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey. The Portuguese-born film producer spent nine years as executive director of the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) in New York, and is delighted to now be steering what she calls “one of the best festivals in the world.” Vicente spoke to us about the role of festivals in a fast-changing industry, new initiatives for Canadian creators, and why producers should run the world—or, at the very least, a film festival.

What compelled you to join TIFF when the opportunity presented itself?

First of all, I love this festival. As a producer, I always loved bringing my filmshere—great audiences, great Q&As, and you really get a sense if a film isgoing to work in the marketplace. It’s also an amazing place to do business;I sold at least three or four films here over the years. TIFF brings everything together: the audiences, the industry, the press. It’s the combination ofall of these stakeholders that makes this amazing event work. I also love the fact that we have a building, TIFF Bell Lightbox, with cinema space and these amazing theatres with great sound and images.

TIFF seemed like something that would stretch me, and I believe I thrive when I’m being challenged. I also feel like there is such energy right now in Toronto. It’s an exciting new chapter, for me and for the festival.

Because the industry is changing so quickly all around us, I want to ask: What role can festivals play in the future? What are our responsibilities? How can we evolve and lead the way? How can we make TIFF even more exciting and relevant, a real part of the fabric of this incredible city? Those questions really excite me.

As you say, the industry is changing. How audiences view films is changing, with big studios squeezing smaller players out of the theatre. What do you think is the role of an independent producer or filmmaker in today’s system?

It is challenging to have, on one hand, our current moment of major studio consolidation and, on the other, a sustainable, diverse ecosystem of independent voices. But at the same time, I believe those voices are so important, because they are outside of the mainstream, and that’s sometimes where transformation happens. A lot of directors who are making huge studio films—from Ryan Coogler to Denis Villeneuve—come from the world of independent filmmaking.

While it’s great to see the studios tapping talent with a distinct voice, it is a challenge for small films to get noticed. Even with so many distribution and platform options to reach audiences, there is so much product—how do you choose? How do you stumble upon great stuff?

But no matter how challenging it is, I think there will always be room and appetite for those strong original voices. Honestly, I think that’s where festivals come in. We are finding and discovering this incredible talent, giving them a platform, and helping them build audiences through exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

You’ve had a fairly prolific career as an independent producer. How does that experience and perspective shape what you hope to achieve at TIFF?

As a producer, you have to be extremely entrepreneurial and innovative. You’re creating a brand from scratch every time. You have to fundraise, you have to put the best people together, you have to make them work well together. You’re working in partnership with the director to help them realize their vision. You’re thinking about the audience for the film. Those varied skill sets will inform my decisions in a major way. Everything I’ve gained as a producer—industry knowledge, a deep understanding of what goes into making films, knowing how to figure out the market for them—all of that is going to serve me well as we position TIFF for the future .

In the past, a film was a film and a TV show was a TV show. Today, with streaming services, the lines between them are getting blurred, in terms of content length, where it gets watched, and so on. What role does theatregoing play in today’s landscape?

I think it’s actually exciting that people are moving fluidly between so-called television (or serialized content) and films. The conventions that have been in place for so long—a film must be between an hour and a half and two and a half hours, a TV show must be less than half an hour or an hour—are disappearing. All of a sudden, creators have the ability to ask what platform works best for the story they want to tell. Do I need 12 hours to develop my characters over time, or is the best form still the conventional 90 minutes?

One of our sections at TIFF is Primetime [television premieres from around the world], and we’ll continue to experiment with showing types of content beyond film and embracing more fluid forms of storytelling. But we do value the cinematic experience: bringing people together and giving them the opportunity to see films in their best form. Whether the films are released on a streaming platform or make it to theatres, what we value is how the film resonates with audiences in our beautiful, darkened theatres.

What are your thoughts on the state of Canadian filmmaking today? How can TIFF—both as a festival and a year-round organization—help to grow the film production sector in Canada?

There really is exceptional talent here, and we want our industry programs and talent labs to continue to foster that talent and address gaps. With Share Her Journey, we really try to address the need for parity in the industry—we need to help build the pipeline for female writers and directors and producers. (I’m excited that this year, half of TIFF’s programmers are women!) TIFF developed a Writers’ Studio program for screenwriters after identifying a need for more assistance in that area.

Also, feature films selected for Canada’s Top Ten now have the opportunity for a theatrical run at the Lightbox. This is a major benefit for Canadian creators. Without duplicating efforts from other industry organizations, we’ll continue to think about initiatives that advance the industry as a whole, while celebrating the remarkable talent that’s here in Canada.