Making Watch Parties Part of Your Engagement Strategy

When the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) went virtual due to COVID-19, virtual watch parties were a popular way for audience members to have a shared experience.

Author: Casey Gale       

Cameron Bailey TIFF

When the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) went virtual due to COVID-19, the organization used virtual watch parties as a way to engage audience members, said Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of TIFF.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) typically hosts 400,000 attendees every September, serving as one of the major film events of the year for fans, media, and industry members alike. Additionally, TIFF stays connected to movie-goers year-round at TIFF Bell Lightbox, a cultural center and cinema space that takes up an entire city block in Toronto’s media and entertainment district. But just like every other organization built on face-to-face connection, TIFF was forced to get creative in 2020 in the wake of the pandemic, according to Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of TIFF.

“A lot of it was about bringing in-person events online,” Bailey said, “so this is all about going digital.”

Bailey, who hosted the session “Going Digital: Transforming TIFF for an Unprecedented Year” at Convening Leaders 2021, walked attendees through the innovative ways in which TIFF stayed connected with film fans and sponsors throughout 2020 when gathering was not an option.

One of the first and most successful ways TIFF responded to the COVID-19 crisis was creating the “Stay at Home Cinema,” which launched online in partnership with Bell Media in late March as a way to stay in touch with their audience members. Bell Media owns a film and TV streaming service called Crave. TIFF mined the service for works that the festival had a history with and organized social media watch parties that drove participants to watch on Crave and take the conversations to platforms like Twitter and Facebook throughout the movie. To give the watch parties even more dimension, TIFF was often able to organize pre-show Q&As on StreamYard with notable talent from the films, from the movie’s stars to directors.

The first “Stay at Home Cinema” watch party featured The Princess Bride, which debuted at TIFF in 1987. Before watching the film, viewers were able to tune in to a conversation with star Mandy Patinkin.

“It turned out to be a big hit,” Bailey said. TIFF went on to create 30 weekly watch parties, featuring guests such as directors Guillermo del Toro before a screening of Pan’s Labyrinth and George Tillman Jr., before a watch party for The Hate U Give, which premiered at TIFF in 2018. The watch parties brought in audience members from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Brazil, India, and more. Fifty-four percent of the audience was made up of TIFF members. The watch parties generated nearly 100 media articles about the event and earned 16 million impressions on social media, to the benefit of TIFF and its partner, Bell Media.

“It turned out to be one of the best things we’ve done,” Bailey said, adding that the watch parties allowed TIFF to stay engaged with its members during one of the most difficult and isolating phases of the pandemic.

Want to learn more about how TIFF has reached out to audience members during the COVID-19 crisis? This session, presented courtesy of Destination Toronto, is available on demand to Convening Leaders registrants in the CL Library until March 15. Visit to learn how to register for this and other on-demand CL21 sessions.

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