Preparing for TIFF 21 with Co-Head Joana Vicente

There are a lot of things I could say about Joana Vicente but if I was to simply it; She’s a big deal!

To expand, she is the executive director and co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival. She has had a fascinating career, from being recognized as a leading figure of the digital film revolution, having co-founded pioneering digital production companies Blow Up Pictures and HDNETFIlms. These companies ushered in a new era of digital filmmaking that transformed the landscape of American independent film production and distribution. She is a producer of over 40 films including the phenomenal Capernaum. Now she co-heads one of the world’s best and most influential film festivals.

A celebrity in her own right, Ms. Vincente has had some practice navigating film festivals in a Covid world. She recently sat down to talk to me about TIFF 2021—what we can expect, what she is excited about, and an initiative that is very near and dear to her.

OLM: I know that you have been involved with TIFF for many years. What has your experience as one of the Co-Heads of TIFF been like for you?

JV: It’s been an amazing, incredible experience. As a producer, I have had many films at TIFF. This is just one of the best festivals in the world and it has the best audience in the world. As a producer, being on the other side, the appreciation for audiences who love film, who are curious and are excited to have conversation around film. It always felt like an amazing place to launch a film. And then, coming into lead the organization was just an incredible opportunity. It has been great working with Cameron (Bailey, artistic director and co-head of TIFF). We both complement each other. He is more on the artistic side of things, and I am more on the business side of things. But I’ve been in the industry all my life, so it’s been an incredible collaboration. We had the first festival under our leadership in 2019 and it went extremely well. We launched the TIFF Tribute Awards Gala, it was such a success and it launched incredible films, and then the pandemic hit. I have to say, it was incredible to co-lead the organization during a really tough time, it’s incredibly challenging but it was also so fulfilling in that we saw the team come together and collaborate and work together in ways that they had never done before. The innovation that came from that collaboration and the ability to be flexible and pivot and make the best of the situation was just an incredible thing that came out of it.

There were so many learnings that came out of this pandemic. We totally accelerated our digital strategy with the digital platform for the festival but also year-round. That is how we have been engaging with our members and audiences. It’s been a very difficult and challenging time.

OLM: I see that many film festivals have opted for an in-person format exclusively while some are running their festival virtually. I love that TIFF has opted for a hybrid festival. What made you decide to do both and not just stick to one?

JV: Last year it came out of necessity. We really felt the only way we could have a meaningful, robust festival and to give a platform for the amazing films that had been submitted was to have a digital festival even though we had an in-person component, but it was limited to fifty people per cinema and we had drive-ins and other venues. After we had the digital platform, we thought ‘this makes sense’ to be part of TIFF ongoing because it allows us to tap into audiences that maybe wouldn’t be able to attend TIFF and we can have a bigger national audience for TIFF. And internationally there is an opportunity for Industry and Press, who maybe wouldn’t have the funds to attend, can have access to the films and conversation, to be able to conduct business. So, we really felt it needed to be part of our strategy going forth. Of course, we respect festivals who believe it’s all about going back to the in person experience and we want to continue to do that as it’s at the heart of what we do, bringing people together and having that incredible collective theatrical experience but we believe the hybrid model makes the most sense. Not just business sense but for the organization to be inclusive and accessible.

OLM:  TIFF is such a springboard for award season. I have always felt that if you want your film to do well during awards season it has to go through the Toronto International Film Festival. So when you look at the upcoming films for the 2021 festival, what are some of the films that you are excited for your audience to see?

JV: Let me start by mentioning the films where we are going to be honouring talent. We are very excited about Dune and very excited about Denis Villeneuve and celebrating him with a (TIFF) Tribute Award. He is an incredible Canadian filmmaker who is working on the world stage, and this is a fabulous, incredible experience. We are really excited about that. I am sure it will be part of award conversation in multiple categories. It is just an incredible achievement.

We are honouring Jessica Chastain. She is just extraordinary in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. One of those kinds of tour de force performances.

I know that we will once again be a platform for those films that will be part of the awards conversation and at the same time, we are excited about the discovery films. We are excited about Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders. This film was at Berlin (film festival). What an amazing first feature from an indigenous filmmaker. We are excited about opening night Dear Evan Hansen, so appropriate for the times. And then some of the docs are just fantastic Dionne Warwick Don’t Make Me Over is incredible. She has such a big fan base in Canada and she is a big figure and voice on Twitter so you have younger audiences being excited about her.

ABOVE: TIFF21 open with Dear Evan Hansen, the film adaptation of the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical about Evan Hansen, a high school senior with Social Anxiety disorder.

OLM: TIFF has something for everyone including people in the industry who want to develop their skills. I really appreciate the ‘Share Her Journey’ initiative. I know that initially that was supposed to be a project for five years but now it is indefinite, which I think is wonderful. Can you take a moment and speak about this initiative?

JV: TIFF has an incredible history of championing women filmmakers. Women filmmakers like Katherine Bigelow, Mira Nair, Nadine Labaki, there are just such incredible filmmakers who have launched their films or and been championed and have had great success at TIFF. The Share Her Journey campaign started before I came in in 2017 and it was right before the global ‘Me Too’ movement but it really helped galvanize and support and call attention for the work that needed to be done to support women filmmakers and women working in film in front of and behind the camera. We really believed that the emphasis needed to be put on delivering actual support and results. We wanted to help women filmmakers get the mentorship and professional development opportunities and networking opportunities and support that would allow them to succeed. We do a lot of work on that front. Over 300 women have been supported by Share Her Journey, there is still work to do.

OLM: Joana Vicente are you ready for some fun rapid-fire questions?

JV: Let’s go!

OLM: Joana Vicente, what is your favourite movie of all time?

JV: That’s always such a hard one. Singing in the Rain.

OLM: I like that you just threw that out. You know how to play this game!

I have seen the film Caperaum (a movie Ms. Vicente produced) and it blew me away. I have introduced a lot of friends to it who just leave that movie crying. Tell me about one of your memories from your involvement with that wonderful film.

JV: Working with Nadine (Labaki, the director of Capernaum) she is the most incredible, generous, thoughtful, brilliant filmmaker. And what is amazing about her, she is very collaborative. She collaborates with the writers, works in workshops with the actors. It is all about getting things to be real and true. She tries to find truth in her filmmaking. She has a sense of humour. I love her.

OLM: Let’s talk Cameron Bailey, your partner in crime. I have seen you guys presenting together. You are both very professional and you head up my favourite film festival. Tell me a funny quirk about Cameron Bailey.

JV: Nothing immediately jumps to mind. (Laughing) I am sure there is something.

OLM: Jessica Chastain is my favourite actress. I love the roles she takes on. She is always playing confident, sometimes complicated but very interesting women. I am very excited that she is getting the Tribute Award. Now here’s the thing, last year Anthony Hopkins got the Tribute Award. Chloe Zhao got the Tribute Award, and they went on to win the Oscar. Are we in a position now that we can not only say that is TIFF predicting which movies will win awards but if you get the Tribute Award there is a good chance you win an acting Oscar as well?

JV: Why are we celebrating these people? Because we are seeing incredible work from them. This is an outstanding performance I can’t imagine she wouldn’t be nominated. The same way Anthony Hopkins was last year. The same was Joaquin Phoenix was. We know when we see it and if we see it, we feel pretty confident others will see it as well.

One of the things we do with the Tribute Awards is to honour an emerging talent. Last year we gave the Emerging Talent Award to Tracey Deer (Beans) and how wonderful it was to then see her win the Canadian Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s great that it gives an international platform and launches careers here.

OLM: What is one of your favourite TIFF moments?

JV: There are so many incredible TIFF moments. When we started the new TIFF Tribute Awards and we got word that Meryl Streep accepted it was our first break to build the foundation and we were jumping in the air with excitement.

Last year presenting Halle Berry’s film (Bruised) and Shamier Anderson was there, and we went on stage and I introduced him and he called Halle Berry on his iPhone and we were at the drive-in and all of the cars started honking. This was her first film as a director, the first film she was showing to an audience and this was the best kind of live feedback we could give her. It felt very special.

The opportunity to present these incredible films, with talent. We have had Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Springsteen and it’s been really fun.

OLM: It’s been wonderful talking with and thank you for your time.

JV: Fantastic. Thanks a lot, it’s been nice talking to you.

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