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Hot Docs left out of budget 2024 funds as financial woes cloud arts organization

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. NSD/

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.

The budget sets aside $23 million over three years for the Toronto International Film Festival and $15 million this year for the Shaw Festival Theatre, which is based out of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Both institutions say they plan to use the cash to expand as they attempt to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cost of operations.

The budget also provides $31 million over two years for the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, which received $8 million per year starting in 2020 — so this year’s budget nearly doubles 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.

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But left out of the budget is Hot Docs, the nation’s largest documentary film festival, which organizers have said is in dire financial straits and may not be able to mount an event next year.

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“The federal government’s decision is putting the future of an important theatre and cultural hub at risk, despite ongoing calls for support from our community,” the Toronto festival said in a written statement.

“Hot Docs requested a couple million in emergency support from this budget, a fraction of the amount allocated for others.”

TIFF said it will use its millions to formalize and expand an industry marketplace at the festival, not unlike the long-standing Marche du Filme at Cannes, in which Hollywood wheelers and dealers acquire distribution rights to films.

Chief Programming Officer Anita Lee said the marketplace would aim to diversify revenue at TIFF, which last year saw its biggest sponsor — Bell — pull out.

“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.”

That means everyday festival attendees may not notice a difference, even with the new funding, Lee said.

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Meanwhile, organizers of 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 was over in 2022, they started to suffer.

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

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.

The Shaw festival is in “recovery mode,” Jennings said. But like TIFF, they’re 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.”

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