For the past 30 years, CEO Piers Handling has foraged the way for the Toronto International Film Festival through its growth into one of the world’s largest and most respected institutions out there. With hundreds of films making their debut each year, from various countries around the world, TIFF has truly become a film Mecca of sorts. Where films, directors, actors, producers, and more continue their legacies or earn their stripes to keep moving ahead in this competitive and sometimes unforgiving film institution.
Under the guidance of Piers Handling, the organization has introduced ground-breaking works to film lovers around the world and created a permanent home for cinema in the heart of downtown Toronto. In honor of Piers’s 37th and final Festival, TIFF hosted an event that celebrated his legacy, which included empowering women as leaders in the industry.
Through Piers’s advocacy and leadership, TIFF has been heralded internationally as a champion for women in film. The TIFF Tribute Gala event is a fundraiser for our Share Her Journey campaign, committed to supporting and empowering female voices, with proceeds going to labs, workshops, residencies, and an accelerator programme specifically designed to advance women’s careers in the industry.
Daniel: We are celebrating you this tonight. Tell me about these past 36 years?
Piers: It’s been a phenomenal ride, I couldn’t have imagined it. Never thought I would end up running into the festival. Yet alone working for the festival. My career took a little bit of a left turn at one point, and I just fell in love with it. It was obviously my pathway in life, and it’s worked out so well because it was, when I started it, a very-very small organization. I knew it was the right place for me to work, my best friend was running the organization so well, and he got me on board. I learned so much, and one thing just led to another. We were sort of a happy gang, and we knew exactly what we wanted to do, and that was really important. And we have continued that vision for over 40 years. That was so important for the success as an organization for continuity, and we are all such close friends still.
Daniel: You described being at the festival during its early years, and today it’s such a mammoth. A mammoth beast, you know in such good ways. Tell me about those trials and tribulations?
Piers: Well, of course, the early days before even I was working for it, but I knew all the stories very well. Trying to persuade anyone to come and any star to attend the festival was very difficult, even the directors. I mean you started in Toronto first year, you have no reputation at all, and of course, you want people to come, attract media attention. One of the film writers or one of the major Toronto papers decided to take a holiday religiously during the festival because he didn’t believe in the idea of the festival.
We had a funny incident, the paper that came on board was the Toronto Sun, and it was the paper in a funny way that was the most populous, but it wasn’t the upgrade paper. They were the ones who stood behind the festival. They gave us the publicity. There is a wonderful man called George Anthony; he really put us on the map. He was in LA all the time, meeting media junkets, talking to these stars saying they should come to Toronto.
It took us a little while to get the people on board, it really did. And of course, in the early days, it was really renegade, very rock n roll, it’s insane when I think about it now. Things didn’t work really well all the time, but TIFF slowly developed a reputation and then we got a couple of key breakthroughs. The Big Chill was one of those films that everyone came to Toronto to see, and that was really what got us noticed.
Daniel: What would you say were the highlights over the years for you?
Piers: The highlight for me is building the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which was key for the festival, especially in its growth these past eight years.
The people you get to meet. So many of the big American stars who come all the way to the festival to showcase their films – meeting them is always a treat. Then there are personal connections, like the relationship I developed with people like Sean Penn, they are all lovely. You know Sean is not only an actor but also a director and so he and I kind of connected in his role as a director. And for an actor stepping into that role as a director that was really important. You know those types of things are so important, so valuable to you, you actually feel that you have participated in someone’s career and has been really helpful.
Daniel: And where do you hope to see the festival to go?
Piers: Now that I am leaving, I hope that the festival still retains its image, I hope the festival keeps in touch with the public. This is a real big populous festival, and that’s very important to me. I hope it’s just sensitive to the developments that are happening around the industry. TIFF is actually one of the leaders, and that’s a very difficult thing to do – I hope it never changes!