Canadian filmmakers hope strike-addled TIFF fosters 'hunger' for indie features

TORONTO — Canadian filmmakers are hoping to draw some of the spotlight at a Toronto International Film Festival dimmed by Hollywood actor and writer strikes.

Montreal-based writer-director Chloé Robichaud says she senses greater interest and attention in her francophone feature, “Days of Happiness,” than for films she’s brought to previous TIFFs.

She thinks it’s due to the fact fewer Hollywood stars are in town to promote their upcoming films.

Meanwhile, actor and producer Devery Jacobs says her queer cheerleading film "Backspot" has sold out all three of its screenings and she suspects the labour protests might have something to do with it.

The Mohawk actor, who is a member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, says she supports the strikes but is happy to be in Toronto to promote a project she helped produce and also stars in.

Jacobs says this year's festival feels different than previous years but sees it as a positive for smaller projects.

"I hope this creates a revival for cinema, and a hunger for indie features," she said on the red carpet for Friday’s premiere.

Robichaud said Saturday that she’s hopeful to secure foreign distribution for her orchestra-set film, starring Sophie Desmarais as a young conductor at a crossroads in her career.

“I think people are looking more at the Canadian films right now because there's less stars in Toronto this year,” said Robichaud.

"There are a lot of films at TIFF so to make your mark is difficult, that's for sure, to stand out. But you have to trust the film and that's what I am trying to do right now. If the film is good, the audience is there, there will be good word-of-mouth so you have to trust the process."

Jacobs attributes part of the success of “Backspot,” which screens again Monday and Sept. 15, to the fact that many celebrities are prevented from promoting larger projects as part of the walkout by SAG-AFTRA members.

As a striking actor herself, Jacobs sidestepped questions about her other projects while expressing support for the strike.

Unions for Hollywood writers and actors are each seeking improved compensation and job protections from labour contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The dual strikes have halted U.S. productions in Canada that employ tens of thousands of Canadians who work in front of and behind the camera.

While much attention has focused on job losses in British Columbia and Ontario, Robichaud said the strikes have also hit hard in Quebec.

"There's usually a lot of American shooting and filming that is done in Montreal. I have a lot of friends, technicians, that don't have as many jobs as they used to," she said.

“The community here is also very (much) in solidarity with what's happening in the States. We follow that closely. I think some changes need to be made also in our unions in Quebec so I think it's inspiring people to get louder and talk more about what needs to be done."

A lack of star power on the red carpets hasn't stopped filmgoers from showing up as the festival entered its third day Saturday.

Sisters Gia and Lia Ui shelled out $177 for premium tickets to see Anna Kendrick's "Woman of the Hour" make its world premiere on Friday.

The two weren't shocked Kendrick didn't attend, but said the chance to be among the first ones to see the film was worth the price alone.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2023.

Brittany Hobson and Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press