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Arts festivals get tens of millions in federal budget, Hot Docs left out

Canada's beleaguered festival sector is getting an infusion of cash from this year's federal budget, which recipients say provides necessary support as their pandemic recovery efforts drag on.
Tens of millions of dollars are allocated to arts festivals in this year's federal budget, which recipients say is a welcome infusion of cash for the beleaguered sector. TIFF's Chief Programming Officer, Anita Lee poses for a photograph on the red carpet for the new movie "The Boy And The Heron" at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Canada's beleaguered festival sector is getting an infusion of cash from this year's federal budget, which recipients say provides necessary support as their pandemic recovery efforts drag on.

Budget 2024, which the governing Liberals announced Tuesday, allocates tens of millions of dollars to arts festivals, including $23 million for the Toronto International Film Festival and $15 million for the Shaw Festival Theatre.

The budget also provides $31 million over two years for the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, which received $8 million per year starting in 2020 — nearly doubling the annual allotment.

The fund distributes cash to hundreds of not-for-profit arts festivals, including the Vancouver Fringe Festival and the Sherbrooke Film Festival in Quebec.

Anita Lee, TIFF's chief programming officer, said the public funds are especially needed as wider economic pressures force many private arts backers to reduce their support.

"The economy is struggling, and you're seeing a lot of corporations streamline and pull back post-COVID," said Lee. 

"What it means is that their corporate dollars to support cultural organizations are currently challenged. And the other part is that we are also dealing with increasing inflation, so everything that we do is costing up to 30 per cent more."

TIFF lost a number of corporate sponsors last year, including its biggest: Bell. 

Lee said TIFF will use its budget allotment — to be spread out over three years — to formalize and expand an industry marketplace at the festival. The goal is to establish an industry hub not unlike the long-standing Marche du Film at Cannes, where movie-making wheelers and dealers can find partners for budding film projects.

Such a market would diversify the September festival's revenue, she said, as businesses would be charged to participate.

"It's not just about growing the work that we're doing currently, but it's very specifically towards increasing business activities at TIFF, really building for the future a content market that will showcase Canadian content — and not just film, in fact. Film, series, IP, creative technology," said Lee.

Lee said the behind-the-scenes activity that already exists will ideally ramp up. They plan to open TIFF's market in three years.

"We already do have an informal market and a lot of business happens at TIFF already," she said. "So we're really just designing what the future market will look like in its official capacity."

Meanwhile, organizers for the Shaw Festival Theatre said they'll have more to say about how they'll spend their money once the government releases more information about the budget. 

"Everybody's still waiting for explanations of the financing to come down," said Tim Jennings, the festival's executive director. 

"We were unbelievably excited — and very surprised — to see our names (in the budget.) We've been advocating for funding for a while, but it was a delightful thing to see."

Jennings said the Shaw festival was able to weather the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic slowdown thanks to insurance but after the province declared the crisis over in 2022, they started to suffer.

They received some government funding that year, but that dried up last year — and at the same time, summertime wildfire smoke kept U.S. tourists from travelling north to take in the festival.

The organization reported its largest ever operating revenue last year, but also, thanks to rising costs, a record deficit. For the first time since the pandemic struck, it had to lay off staff.

At the same time, one of the festival's buildings — the Royal George Theatre — is crumbling. Its clay foundation is dissolving, and it desperately needs to be rebuilt, said Jennings.

The Shaw festival is in "recovery mode," Jennings said. But like TIFF, it's also eyeing expansion.

"Many of the things that we're looking at in terms of this expansion are about deepening human connection, and are really important to the survival and in fact growth of an organization like ours."

Left out of the budget, however, is Hot Docs, the nation's largest documentary film festival, which organizers have said is in dire financial straits.

"Hot Docs has been vocal about the enormous post-pandemic challenges it faces and its urgent need for financial support from the Government of Canada," Hot Docs said in a written statement.

"We will proudly deliver an exceptional festival that kicks off April 25th, but we fear it will be the last unless the federal government steps up to the plate."

Hot Docs had requested "a couple million in emergency support" from the budget, the statement said, which it notes is "a fraction of the amount allocated for others."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2024.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press