As Piers Handling steps down from his post as CEO of TIFF, filmmaker and author Barry Avrich reflects on his peer’s remarkable career.

I first met Piers Handling unofficially in September of 1982. I had just moved to Toronto from Montreal to start classes at Ryerson, and that same year Piers had moved from Ottawa to start working for the Festival of Festivals, which has since evolved into TIFF. We were both proverbial fish out of water in a big city.     

As I nervously tried to find my way in this new place, I discovered the perfect escape from my classes in the film festival. Then in its seventh year, the Festival honoured Martin Scorsese, who participated in a Q&A with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel while, outside University Theatre, two new directors, Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald, put on a rogue screening of their short films after their works were rejected from the official Festival line-up.

I bought my first-ever ticket to the Festival and weathered the long line to watch Paul Mazursky’s Tempest starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Susan Sarandon, and a very young Molly Ringwald. The film was not great. In fact, Vincent Canby, a film critic for The New York Times, wrote, Tempest “is an overblown, fancified freak of a film. Experiencing it is like watching a 10-ton canary as it attempts to become airborne.”

It was at that screening where I first met Piers, albeit briefly. I introduced myself and wished him luck in his new role. He wouldn’t recall this encounter, but the magic of serendipity is such that 15 years later, I found myself working shoulder to shoulder with him. We collaborated on the TIFF film trailers and posters for 12 years while I served on the TIFF board—a position I still hold—helping Piers shape the capital campaign for TIFF Bell Lightbox. As further coincidence would have it, some 28 years after first seeing it at TIFF, I would also come to produce a film adaptation of The Tempest with Christopher Plummer.

After years of working in the industry, I must say this: watching Piers program a film festival is like watching Kasparov play chess. The alchemy of art and commerce is in his blood, his ability to identify the balance of what audiences want to see and what they need to see is second to none. Perhaps he used his extraordinary knowledge of military battles to form his strategy/ (Piers has been a lifetime collector of military figurines.)

Piers began his career at Ottawa’s Canadian Film Institute (CFI) in 1971 as a microfilm clerk. It was his first full-time job. It was there he met Wayne Clarkson, who would go on to be the Executive Director of TIFF—then called the Festival of Festivals—as well as his co-pilot, Michèle Maheux, who would eventually join him as the Executive Director and COO at TIFF. Piers spent 10 years at CFI, ultimately becoming the Deputy Director, but after a dispute with the Executive Director, Frederik Manter (Piers alleged that the CFI was being poorly managed), he led a staff revolt and exited in 1981. This move would shape his vision of how a true film institution should be measured. Piers left without a real plan, but says the CFI provided the foundation for his career.

After his departure from CFI, Piers taught Canadian cinema at Carleton University in Ottawa and Queen’s University in Kingston. That was until Wayne, now firmly in place at the Festival, reached out. Wayne brought Piers to Toronto to work on programming, and it was at that point that the Festival began to find its raison d’être. Piers pivoted the annual event from one that showed films that had already found success at other festivals to one that had its own bold world premieres, often making pre-Oscar discoveries along the way. Over the next 30 years, the Festival programming flourished, embracing titles such as Chariots of Fire, The Big Chill, The Bay Boy starring 17-year-old Kiefer Sutherland, Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire, Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, a film developed at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. Alongside these well-known films, however, ran just as many thrilling retrospectives and showcases of various foreign films. You get my point.

Piers’ vision to entertain and educate was boundless, his commitment to Canadian film relentless, and under his leadership, TIFF would grow from a 10-day festival to a 365-day annual exhibitor of film and an internationally renowned cultural institution. Piers led a $196-million fundraising campaign to build TIFF Bell Lightbox, a permanent home for TIFF.

Navigating ever-changing audience whims and a new digital landscape has earned Piers both acclaim and a few critics, but since taking the reins, he has never slowed his quest to satiate the audience’s thirst for film. When he was appointed to director and CEO in 1994, the board chair told him to begin thinking about his successor, but Piers had too much on his mind to think about who would eventually take over. Time waits for no man, though, no matter how bold the mission, and 36 years later, the rebel who left CFI to lead a revolution in film is finally stepping down.

It was Festival founders Bill Marshall, Henk Van der Kolk, and Dusty Cohl who ignited the flame but, it was Piers who stoked it into the raging fire it is today.

Piers Handling