Movies for Grown-ups

The Toronto International Film Festival’s central hub, TIFF Bell Lightbox, serves as a sleek, sophisticated, and year-round home for film

Exterior shot of TIFF Bell Lightbox, located on the northwest corner of King and John Streets in Toronto.

The design of a movie theatre often winds up like this: the building is large, with two wings spread on either side of a central, windowless atrium. It looms over the cars filling its parking lot, while its pink and turquoise neon-accented sign proclaims its name in buzzing light: Stadium 14, Majestic 18, Valley View 16, etc.

In other words: nothing even remotely similar to the sleek, silvery glass tower added in 2010 to Toronto’s skyline.

Coming from an academic background in film, Piers Handling used to drive five hours to see the Toronto International Film Festival. Today, he serves as its CEO.

The stepped roof of TIFF Bell Lightbox is a sly reference to the Villa Malaparte in Jean Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt. Inside, you can watch that new indie documentary or the latest from a rising Chinese filmmaker in one of the cinema’s contemporary red chairs, designed by the same company who did the seating in the Paris Opera House. There are art galleries and a restaurant that serves cocktails with names like Black Swan and War Horse. The glassed-in master control booth is on view in a bold-red frame in a three-storey atrium. On hand at the concession stand, rather than the typical popcorn and M&Ms, are date pecan scones and quiches with spinach and goat cheese.

The Toronto Star pronounced TIFF Bell Lightbox a complex with an impressive number of uses but which functions primarily as the Toronto International Film Festival’s home base, a “movie house for grown-ups.”

Piers Handling, TIFF’s CEO, couches it in broader, slightly more sentimental terms: “A home for movies,” he offers as a definition for the Lightbox, which stands on the northwest corner of King and John Streets in Toronto’s budding entertainment district. Not a house for movies—any venue in the world can throw off the lights and start the reel; you come, you stay to watch, you leave—but TIFF Bell Lightbox is a place where you come, you stay, and then you stay longer, and then you come back, even if it’s not to see a film at all. Home—a kind of all-encompassing, permanent residence for film and the people who love it. (That last part could be taken literally; set back on the Lightbox’s John Street side is a tower condominium of private residences.)

Having a permanent home is unusual for a film festival. Most film festivals, even massive ones like TIFF, are gypsies of a certain kind. They swoop in on a city, overcome and fill its available screens, hotels, and sidewalks with directors, fans, celebrities, media, and buyers, then retreat after it’s all over to regroup for the next splashy season. When TIFF Bell Lightbox was conceived, “there was nothing like it in the world,” Handling says.


Number of films showed during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year

Number of films submitted for consideration to TIFF last year

In minutes, the longest film showed in 2011 (The Story of Film: An Odyssey)

In minutes, the shortest film showed in 2011 (349 (For Sol LeWitt))

Number of theatres in
TIFF Bell Lightbox

Number of cinema seats in
TIFF Bell Lightbox

Average age of TIFF employees

$20 million
TIFF’s revenue

“When we had this notion of a building, it was a staff-driven idea,” he says. They were working out of an anonymous high-rise and knew that the festival itself, by then one of the most highly regarded film events in North America, would continue to thrive if the situation changed little. But TIFF had evolved into something more than a 10-day industry event that people looked to for movies headed down the Oscar road. The organization, under Handling’s direction since 1994, was developing year-round programming. The diverse, dynamic city of filmgoers—Toronto residents watch more movies per capita than all cities in North America but Los Angeles and New York—had proved it could support it. Handling wanted an archive and library, wanted to revive old films on large screens, wanted to offer screen space to small, niche film festivals, and wanted to develop a teen film festival and a children’s film festival. For all of this, TIFF would need a home.

To convince the board of directors, Handling took several members on a trip to Europe to show them the British Film Institute in London, Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek, and the Cinémathèque Française in Paris—all examples of what TIFF hoped to be in Canada.

“They went over as skeptics, and they came back as advocates,” Handling says.

What resulted after years of planning, strategizing, and running an extensive $196 million capital campaign is this: five cinemas, ranging in capacity from an intimate, 80-seat space to a multiplex-style 528-seater; two restaurants, one casual, one higher-end, both by O&B; two galleries (a James Bond exhibition opening in one this fall); offices that contain the 150 or so TIFF staff members; and 38 stories of condominiums above TIFF’s five floors, called Festival Tower. According to the local firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, the envisioned design for the Bell Lightbox blends “the solidity of architecture” and “ephemerality of the medium of film.”

The 37th edition of the film festival took place this September, and Handling has only missed it twice. In 1976, the festival’s first year, he was working in Ottawa, flipping through pages of film magazines and marking the movies he would have to drive five hours or more to see. “You couldn’t see them in Ottawa,” he says, “you had to go to either Montréal or Toronto.”

Today, TIFF is easily counted among one of the world’s top-tier film events—it’s common for the media to call it second only to Cannes in Paris—but in that first year, there were no sold-out houses. Still, “there was just such excitement in the cinemas,” Handling says. “They weren’t full. Far from it. But you know that you were kind of with a clubby group of people who were as excited about seeing these films as you were.” He drove the five hours back to Ottawa and remarked to one of his friends, “This thing is really going to work in Toronto.

“It’s one of the few real insights I’ve had in my life.”

Q&A with Piers Handling

What do you, personally, love about film?
In the hands of a true artist, film reorders the way you look at the world. When I was younger, film allowed me to lose myself in someone else’s world, so it was a form of escapism. As I became older, I became more interested in those films that questioned the rules and challenged notions of escapism. There are so many different ways of putting image and sound together. The films I respond to challenge convention, break the rules, and play with ideas of time, space, off-screen space, landscape. Film is often seen as diversionary entertainment. I love films that unsettle me in some way, reorder the world, and make me think.

You come from an academic background in film. How do you think that prepared you for the position you have now with TIFF?
It made me very conscious of what constituted a good film, as you quickly become acquainted with the classics of cinema. It provided me with a context for everything that I saw, which was invaluable. It also allowed me to talk to filmmakers about their work, comparing it to other films. When you critically dissect a film to write or lecture about it, you really begin to understand how films work at every level.

How many films do you actually get to sit down and watch during the fest?
During the festival, I see no films. My job is to host, problem solve, and be everywhere. In Cannes and Berlin, I see about 30 films over the course of each festival.

In your photo on TIFF’s press page, you’re holding hardback copies of the biographies of Jean-Luc Godard, William Faulkner, and Jean Renoir. Explain.
Godard is the reason I became involved in cinema, so he started my career. I saw Weekend when I was 19, and the light went on. I still love his work. I am a huge bibliophile, and books are as important to me as cinema; Faulkner is a great love, but it could as well have been Tolstoy, Balzac, Lawrence, Wolff, and many others. Renoir speaks to the past of film and my love for that era of the black-and-white cinema. You missed the Annapurna book. I love the mountains; I ski fanatically and climbed seriously when I was younger, and have climbed and trekked in Nepal around Annapurna and Everest. These books constitute important parts of my life. Music is missing—and that is also a great love.