Interview: Douglas Allison
Featuring an interview with the CFO of the Toronto International Film Festival, a game-changing technology application for Apple and a partnership to make Mattel competitive again
TIFF is a charitable cultural organization whose mission is to transform the way people see the world through film. An international leader in film culture, TIFF projects include the annual Toronto International Film Festival in September; TIFF Bell Lightbox, which features five cinemas, major exhibitions, and learning and entertainment facilities; and the innovative national distribution program Film Circuit. The organization generates an annual economic impact of $189M CAD.
Douglas Allison: Chief Financial Officer
Douglas Allison joined TIFF in October of 2013 as Chief Financial Officer. Douglas oversees TIFF’s Finance and Information Technology teams, leading the financial strategic plans for revenue generation and audience growth, and financial strategic preparation as TIFF continues toward its vision for the future: think global, consolidate local.
Douglas previously spent nine years with the Canadian Football League (CFL) where he oversaw a period of unprecedented financial stability and implemented some of the most significant advancements in the organization’s history. He was also heavily involved in the CFL’s recent breakthrough negotiations of its collective bargaining agreement and national broadcast agreement.
Beyond the finance world, Douglas led the events team in its execution of the 99th Grey Cup in Vancouver in 2011 and the 100th Grey Cup celebration in Toronto in 2012. Prior to the CFL, in 2004 Doug worked with the Ottawa Senators and spent five years working with Ernst & Young in Toronto and London, England.
IBR: The vision statement of TIFF is to be the global centre for film culture. When you think forward 10-15 years, what do you think TIFF will look like?
DA: I think for me it is being a global source for film culture, regardless of what country you are in. TIFF needs to be the first place to go for real authoritative, impactful engagement with film. Whether it’s because people know they can engage with the community within TIFF in an interesting way or that the expertise that comes out of TIFF is there. For me, the 15 year vision is that the tentacles we have in the world get more and more pervasive and the community we have built becomes more and more connected.
IBR: TIFF’s strategy seems very multi-pronged. If you had to choose one, would you say it’s about having more international locations, more international content or reaching more international audiences?
DA: I think reaching more international audiences in the most economical way. If the best and most cost-effective way to engage the community is virtually, then that’s the way we want to do it. Alternatively, the physical route may be more appropriate for the purpose of other goals. Last year, we took our annual Canada’s Top Ten Festival down to Los Angeles to expose both TIFF and Canadian content to a new marketplace, and to engage with the industry there. For this type of foray, it made more sense in a physical way. Depending on what we’re trying to accomplish, the strategy gets dictated by it. Maybe at some point we will have more international offices, but that’s far in the future.
IBR: What were some tangible outcomes of taking the Canada’s Top Ten Festival down to Los Angeles?
DA: Seeing the attendance numbers and media reaction for the varied films we brought down has allowed us to refine our selection for future touring programmes, including an upcoming partnership with Telefilm Canada where we are focusing primarily on new, unreleased Canadian film. While we have primarily focused on producing brick and mortar screenings in foreign markets, there is a real opportunity to carve out a digital niche by offering exclusive online screening opportunities in the future, particularly as our Digital Studio builds our internal capacity.
IBR: You mentioned spending in the most economical way. If you had one incremental dollar, which initiative would you spend it on?
DA: I know you asked for one, but I’m going to give you three. One is enhancing the way we can steer people towards film. I want to conduct more directed and individual marketing to get patrons into the building more often for things they will find enjoyable. The other aspect is digital. I want to increase the amount of content we create and improve the platforms through which they are delivered. Thirdly, is the building itself — TIFF Bell Lightbox. We’re now five years into the building, and we’ve learned a lot about how people engage with it. I want to spend more money making the building more welcoming.
IBR: TIFF’s mission statement is to transform how people see the world, through film. Transforming how people see the world requires large volumes of people, yet attracting volumes tends to require more commercial, less challenging films. Does this tension manifest itself in daily operational decisions, and if so, how?
DA: While volume is important, it’s not necessarily a strict rule. There is no set level of engagement for TIFF as a whole. We do set shorter-term goals with regards to the various elements of our outreach, but globally we have not set a target audience level.
The key is to bring things that enhance people’s lives and that they leave the experience with TIFF changed in a positive way.
Now as we look to grow that audience, we are starting to be more ambitious. We need to start reaching into different audiences and countries to grow as well. So no, we are not looking to be more commercialized. We want to take the things that were great to start with and export it in new ways. Whether that’s virtually through digital forms, or physically by taking some of our key programming that works well here to different areas. There’s an incredible scale of people that watch film around the world and I don’t think you need to over-commercialize anything to engage them.
IBR: One of the easiest ways to make sure your programming is accessible to diverse audiences is by growing through online platforms. How does TIFF think about using its brand to achieve this when you own little in the way of content?
DA: That is not a new struggle, just a new platform. The film festival at its core doesn’t own the content either, but it still attracts people to engage with it. If you want people to see content that’s not yours, you have to compel those artists to buy into what you’re trying to do with it. I think when we go digital, we have to give filmmakers equally compelling reasons to do so.
TIFF has to play to its strengths; it has to provide an experience that is more than just strictly the film on the screen. For example, presenting films people normally wouldn’t get exposed to, and producing talks, Q&As and analyses that go along with the films. This makes people go see a film at the festival or the building and want to engage with film through TIFF online. We are looking to build out a digital programming vision that will strive to do something from a very real place, something honest to create emotional connections. Part of our digital strategy this year will be to build a conversation online around film via articles, podcasts, videos and social channels. The goal is to grow TIFF to become a smart, passionate gateway to new films, filmmakers, craft and storytelling; to become a digital barometer of the global film scene.
IBR: Do you think TIFF will start producing more of its own content, such as its own films?
DA: We will definitely start producing more of our own content and analysis, and do more critical aggregation of people’s analyses and thoughts around films. Whether or not we get into producing – I don’t know.
IBR: Curation is obviously a strength of TIFF’s. As it moves online, there’s so much more information, for example, websites with film critiques. How will TIFF differentiate online?
DA: From a strategy standpoint, it’s a question we’re still juggling with. When you look at curation across all industries in the last 10 to 20 years, there’s been a democratization of curation. People are going to aggregate sites to get an aggregation of a large population’s opinions and I think that our role in that, we still have to find out. But at the core, there’s still that need for someone to present the opportunity for discovery of things people would otherwise not be exposed to. TIFF will bring not only things that the masses have indicated are worth watching, but we will also bring the hidden gems. As we move from physical to digital, we have to keep that core strength.
IBR: Digital seems to be a large part of your strategy moving forward. TIFF’s core competency isn’t in the digital world, so how have you been able to bring competencies into the organization or build them from within?
DA: In terms of the competencies we need to deliver content, we brought some expertise in; we are ramping up our capacity and looking to build out strong partnerships. From a content perspective, that’s a core competency this
organization has always had. Arguably, the more critical aspect is providing compelling content, rather than how it’s disseminated.
IBR: TIFF is launching an online media outlet on film culture, which is meant to be a centrepiece of the digital strategy. What resources are being put behind this (e.g., headcount, budget, etc.)?
DA: This is a seven-figure investment with nine full-time additions and many contracted and outsourced content contributors. We will be using this to start investing seriously in both technology and content.
IBR: When is this projected to launch?
DA: Elements of this initiative have and will continue to launch on the content and product fronts. From the content perspective, we are trying a number of new editorial plays and we will see what resonates with our audience including articles, new podcasts, a new newsletter, “The Review”, featuring a number of well known guest curators, including James Franco. On the product side of things we will be launching a new web design that we plan to iterate on, a new tool for queuing in our ticket portal as well as a festival app.
IBR: A competitive advantage TIFF has held in the past is its ability to host the worldwide premiere of award-winning films such as Silver Linings Playbook and Moneyball. However, there has been increased competition in the space, leading to films such as Gravity debuting first at smaller festivals such as Telluride Film Festival before they debut at TIFF. How does TIFF approach tackling competition?
DA: There is a lot of room in the film festival marketplace and our priority is to give filmmakers the best opportunity to promote, enhance and bring their films to the appropriate audience. As long as we’re focused on bringing one of the world’s best viewing audience to Toronto and providing that to filmmakers, then I think that will be the recipe for success. Although we’re keeping an eye on what’s going on in the film festival market, the focus is on enhancing our own strengths.
IBR: As you look to start building your new 5-year plan, looking back, how successful do you think TIFF has been in meeting the different mandates set out in the last strategic plan?
DA: Incredibly successful. The last strategic plan was essentially the first five years of the TIFF Bell Lightbox building. There were a lot of unknowns and predictions of how things would work and how we would make them work. Some of them worked out, but some, we have had to be very adaptive with. But I think the organization having built this building means it’s become a very sustainable place, and that speaks to the “Consolidate Local” piece. In terms of “Expanding Globally”, we now have things traveling internationally, including all around North America, Europe and Asia. Both of those aspects have been pushed forward.
IBR: Being a non-profit, TIFF has somewhat of a complicated mandate that traditional financial key performance indicators (KPIs) such as profit or EPS, would not be useful in measuring. Organizationally, TIFF has four strategic priorities listed: artistic excellence, visitor experience, people & culture and sustainability; what KPIs to do associate with these priorities?
DA: Non-profits are such a big part of Canada, but in all my education I only ever learned how to report on financial performance. I do not remember ever learning about measuring the achievement of a mission. This is starting to change and you see other non-profits struggling with it as well. Out of all the struggles, we have seen a lot of creative solutions emerge. Our four pillars seem difficult to measure, but not with creativity. For example, if you look at visitor experience, we have conducted many surveys and have developed metrics such as the number of people served within a time frame and rate of complaints. Same thing with artistic excellence; we can still measure it by looking at how critically acclaimed the films that come through the building and festival are, and what the breadth of international reach of the films is. We have KPIs within non-traditional areas, but we have had to be more creative and iterative.
IBR: In order to become a great film festival, financially, what does TIFF feel is the best route for raising the necessary funds?
DA: One of the best things about the revenue streams is that they are so diverse and it has allowed the organization over the last 40 years to go through the ebbs and flows of the economy and industry unscathed. I think as we move forward, I want to maintain that diversity.
IBR: 31% of TIFF’s revenues come from sponsorships. How do you feel this aspect impacts how TIFF approaches strategic decisions and operations? Does this ever come into conflict with creative mandates?
DA: It does impact some of our strategic decisions, but in a nice, enhancing way. When a sponsor chooses to engage with the festival, it’s not really on a whim or about buying the eyeballs. When we go through the mutual courting process of trying to bring them in as sponsors, they learn about TIFF and our mission. If it doesn’t resonate with them as a sponsor, they won’t be here or last very long.
It comes into conflict, but a lot less than people expect. I often think the conflict about us finding that right sweet spot of allowing sponsors to show their support and engage with our audience without taking away from the film viewing and overall experience.
IBR: In addition to managing sponsors, what do you feel are other unique aspects of acting as the CFO of a non-profit organization?
DA: I think the most unique thing about non-profits is the complexity of the decision-making. There’s a misconception that decision-making for non-profits is less complex because you don’t have an obligation to make a whole bunch of money. But at the same time I think the actual decision-making is far more complex. Because you do have this obligation to make a certain amount of money and be sustainable and at the same time you have this mission and complexity layered into it. And I think that’s the most interesting part — the complexity of decision-making and getting yourself and the organization comfortable with that complexity, and enjoying it rather than finding it sort of frustrating.