T.O. Webfest Interview with Festival Director Michael Evask and Artistic Director Rodney V. Smith

At this past 2021 T.O. WebFest — which runs throughout July each year — I was able to watch some of the exciting web series that the festival had to offer (including NarcoLeap, Avocado Toast and What We Leave Behind). The festival is based in Toronto and is an annual showcase of some of the best web-series’ that Canada has to offer, as well as worldwide web series.

For the festival, I was also able to conduct an interview (via e-mail) with Festival Director Michael Evask, as well as the festival’s Artistic Director, Rodney V. Smith. Find that conversation below, which has been edited for clarity:

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest.com: Hey, guys. First, can you introduce yourselves and share a bit about the history of the T.O. Webfest?

Rodney V. Smith: I’m Rodney V. Smith and I’m a writer-director-producer-editor. Pretty much what we call a multi-hyphenate in the web series world. I’ve been part of the web series scene since 2010, and I’m one of the founders of WebSeries Canada and of T.O. Webfest.

Michael Evask: Hi, I’m Michael Evask, the Festival Director of T.O. Webfest, and Rodney’s the Artistic Director of the festival. What that means is I produce the festival and Rodney directs the festival. We lifted the structure from TIFF and it seems to work well. T.O. Webfest started about the same time as the other major web fests around the world in 2014.

Rodney V. Smith: The festival itself was a pet project of former board members Carrie Cutforth and Regan Latimer, who wanted to be able to showcase the work of the members in a big event. Why travel all the way to Los Angeles when we can host our own festival, right? From that point, the festival just grew and became one of the driving forces of WebSeries Canada.

T.O. Webfest. introduced an equity and inclusion fund for underrepresented artists at this year’s festival. (Courtesy of T.O. Webfest.)

DP, Filmcraziest.com: Awesome, thanks for that background. Now, web series don’t seem as popular as other mediums like film or TV series and don’t get enough due. So can you speak to why this festival is so important?

Rodney V. Smith: Our festival is important because it continues to advocate for the medium of web series and for the creators themselves. From a practical standpoint, web series have replaced short films as the calling card for creators who want to level-up to making feature films or television.

The experience that can be gained in filmmaking just from making a web series is much different, since most series, especially those with limited budgets, are made over a series of weeks or months. This is more like shooting a feature film or in some cases, similar to being a showrunner on television.

From a different point of view, web series are important because they lend themselves to a different form of creativity and expression. Creators can experiment with the format and tell the stories they really want to see on the screen, and that can be really exciting to see.

DP, Filmcraziest.com: Though web series would normally be watched online, do you usually have audiences at your festival in a physical screening in a normal year?

Michael Evask: In the past we have had festival audiences in theatres watching web series, but since COVID we have had to build online platforms.

Rodney V. Smith: We’ve noticed a rise and fall in audiences over the years, with some people willing to watch series in the theatre, but one of the most notable changes we’re embracing coming out of the pandemic is a more hybrid approach, where the majority of our screenings will be held via online portal, allowing audiences worldwide to see the series.

Michael Evask: Our discovery is that the online platform is more convenient, as the audience can watch the web series when they want instead of only being available at a certain time, in a certain theatre. I believe the future will be different for us, and our festival will be a hybrid where certain web series will be celebrated by having a gala in a theatre.

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An award for one of the web series at this past T.O. Webfest, NarcoLeap. (Courtesy of T.O. Webfest.)

DP, Filmcraziest.com: Speaking of COVID-19, what were some of the challenges for this year’s festival?

Michael Evask: Of course, we had to pivot and became a digital festival, but that was probably easier for us than most other festivals because all of our content was ready to transfer to that medium. The one thing we have learned is audiences prefer watching things on their own schedule.

This can be frustrating if you’re doing a presentation and only three people show up, but by the end of the month 300 people have seen your presentation. It’s more like working on YouTube, in a year, 3,000 people could see your presentation. Our struggle after COVID may be trying to get our audiences back to theatres.

Rodney V. Smith: We also worked on giving a better festival experience this year, utilizing a virtual networking platform that the filmmakers all seemed to like. They were able to chat with each other and it was almost like being face-to-face again, which is an aspect that we all miss about the festival.

DP, Filmcraziest.com: Now, when choosing a web series to showcase in this year’s diverse programme, is there anything specific you look for? Is there any criteria they have to meet?

Michael Evask: I would say we are one of the most progressive festivals in the world, we accept submissions in every category at every budget level. We even have a program to help the underrepresented in our industry submit for free via The Spark Equity Program presented by the CMF.

So there is no criteria the filmmaker has to meet. The one thing that helps us choose from our diverse programming and to single out our winners is our international jury. It is amazing to see how, through our scoring method, the right web series always finds its way to the top. I think that’s why winning at TO WebFest means so much because it’s hard to win an award at our festival against the hundreds of entries we receive each year.

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Kate Green, winner of Best Overall Pitch at T.O. Webfest’s Pitch Pit. She is also the creator of NarcoLeap. (Courtesy of T.O. Webfest.)

DP, Filmcraziest.com: I was looking at the fest’s website and noticed “The Pitch Pit,” can you tell the readers about that? Why is that an exciting part of the festival for you?

Michael Evask: I love the Pitch Pit! It’s like giving someone their 15 minutes of fame. We expanded our Pitch Pit this year and I realized it was the best thing we could have done. The teams who are the most “together” and pitch their pilot across like a pro are going to win, and they are always the ones who win.

Rodney V. Smith: The Pitch Pit allows creators the chance to pitch to judges who work in the film industry. These guys get pitched all the time, so they know what makes a good pitch.

Michael Evask: This year, we also added “Best Pitch” and “Best Pilot” as two separate categories and something surprising happened. We were able to find two people that could be future stars. That has been the exciting part of this year’s festival: Finding future stars in the programming, as well as the Pitch Pit.

DP, Filmcraziest.com: Do you guys have a favourite web series that you would recommend to people?

Michael Evask: This is an easy question to answer: What We Leave Behind, Detention Adventure, For the Record, Short Term Sentence, Piege, NarcoLeap, Avocado Toast, Dog Days… That’s just the Canadians. You can find the entire world at T.O. WebFest.

Rodney V. Smith: Well, we’re not supposed to have favourites, but it’s gotta be Love, Guns and Level-Ups. It’s just good fun that appeals to my geek side.

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A poster of the web series What We Leave Behind, directed by Jon Elliott. (Courtesy of T.O. Webfest.)

DP, Filmcraziest.com: Awesome. Yeah, my favourites are on that list, too. Also, what’s something from this year’s festival that you’re proud of that your team did?

Michael Evask: Being able to start our equity and inclusion fund for underrepresented artists in our industry and finding a generous sponsor like the Canadian Media Fund to support is what I’m most proud of. Without that fund, we would not have discovered a web series like What We Leave Behind which won three awards at this year’s festival.

DP, Filmcraziest.com: Speaking of awards, and to start to wrap up, can you talk a bit about this year’s award winners?

Michael Evask: This year’s awards ceremony was a little different than last year’s, and next year it will probably be different again. We sent out the awards ahead of time, so the winners could send back videos accepting their award, and the filmmakers who are not camera shy did so. I think it was great. We saw filmmakers from around the world accepting awards at T.O. Webfest, and even with all our awards, it only took 45 minutes. I won’t say they were better than the Oscars, but you decide!

DP, Filmcraziest.com: That’s great. Thank you guys for taking the time to answer these questions, and congrats on a successful festival.

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