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TIFF's $200-million case for arts funding

The case for arts funding needn't be all airy-fairy. TIFF could generate $200 million for Toronto this year.


(Photo: Mathew5000/Wikimedia)

The case for arts funding needn’t be all airy-fairy. The Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off today, is an exemplar of economic payback.

In a report commissioned by TIFF in 2010, the economic impact of the festival was estimated to reach $200 million annually by this year. Part of that growth was attributed to the recent completion of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival’s new headquarters, which opened in 2010 and plays films year-round.

The study, conducted by TCI Management Consultants and Cormex Research, looked at the 2008-2009 year, when TIFF’s impact to Toronto’s economy was pegged at $170 million. While most of that came from the festival itself, a hotbed for film industry business transactions, and the Lightbox’s construction, tourist dollars also played a big role. Out-of-town visitors spent a total of $27 million during 2008’s festival. In all, TIFF’s year-round activities and the construction of the Lightbox generated $60 million in tax revenue and provided full-time employment to 2,300 Ontarians.

In short, TIFF shows that arts funding can be an investment. It’s not merely money lost in the name of cultural vibrancy (which isn’t to say that economic arguments are the only valid ones).

TIFF is one of Toronto’s biggest recipients of arts grants, receiving $800,000 per year from the city (only the Toronto Symphony and National Ballet receive more cash). That amount was at risk, however, when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s administration proposed cutting funding to the arts by 10%. But the cut couldn’t get through city council this past January, so the amount will stay the same for now.

The Harper government, not known for being well-loved by the arts community, may have realized some of these benefits when it set aside $362,000 in new funding for TIFF earlier this year. Specifically, it was intended for a Lightbox-based exhibit by revered Toronto-born director David Cronenberg, a sort of high-tech reality game set to launch next fall.

After all, TIFF’s value is in its fame. Cronenberg’s project is just one more way to garner headlines.

Indeed, the festival does a lot to boost Toronto’s reputation. In fact, Time claimed in 2007 that TIFF had grown to become “the most influential film festival, period,” beating out both Cannes and Sundance.

But that growth didn’t happen overnight. TIFF launched in 1976 as “The Festival of Festivals.” Its attendance then was only a fraction of what it is now. It grew a lot through the ‘90s and by 2003 its annual economic impact was estimated to be $67 million, a third of what it’s projected to be this year.

It takes time to grow a festival. And it takes talent, something Toronto Sun writer Sue-Ann Levy may have overlooked when she criticized the festival for paying 10 employees more than $80,000 a year—peanuts to what the festival generates for the city.

TIFF isn’t a charity case. It’s generating serious GDP for Toronto, all the while advertising our country’s largest city, year after year, to the entire world—the value of which is harder to measure, but far from negligible.