NEWS
03/03/2016 10:49 EST | Updated 03/04/2017 00:12 EST

Music, arts festivals feeling pinch of low loonie, booking more Canadian talent

TORONTO — The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival has recruited some notable American names in the past, including "Saturday Night Live" star Kate McKinnon and writer-actor Michael Ian Black.

But this year it will be an exclusively Canadian event for a reason that's no laughing matter: the low loonie means the fest can't afford to book international talent.

This year's lineup is all homegrown and a bit more eclectic than usual, with names including Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics along with comedians Gavin Crawford, Jessica Holmes and Sean Cullen.

They may be household names on this side of the border, but the festival isn't expecting to sell as many tickets as in previous years.

"I think we probably will not," says Paul Snepsts, executive director of the event also known as TOsketchfest, which kicked off Thursday.

"That's not because of a lack of talent in this country. It just seems, and I think this is true in music as well as comedy, that we have a tendency to be prone to buying into something once it has achieved success elsewhere."

Some other arts festivals are also grappling with the weak dollar.

"We're feeling it somewhat," says Josh Grossman, artistic director of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, which showcases talent from around the world.

"It has probably eliminated some of the artists that we could look at at the very top end of the fee scale, just because of the exchange rate. But otherwise we're still putting out a great roster."

Grossman says he's heard organizers of other festivals say the loonie is also affecting their approach to programming.

"Everyone is doing their best, just as we are, to work within their budgets and have extra discussions with agents and make sure everyone understands what festivals in Canada are up against this year with the exchange rate."

Snepsts says TOsketchfest was picking this year's lineup between last October and January, at a time when the loonie was sinking and eventually fell below 69 cents U.S. — a nearly 13-year low.

They looked at booking talent from the U.K., the U.S., and Australia but just couldn't afford it with the sagging exchange rate.

"In all cases, whenever you're dealing with an international act, you're going to be using the U.S. dollar, so you're vulnerable to it no matter what," he says. 

They also looked at the possibility of signing big American names and offsetting their costs by booking them in larger venues with higher ticket prices.

But Snepsts didn't feel comfortable asking patrons to shoulder such costs, he says.

"So the upshot is, we had to think about, 'What do we do instead? We've got to come up with something that's exciting and creative and domestic.'"

Grossman says the Toronto Jazz Festival is on a tight budget every year and is used to working within constraints while trying to find extra sources of revenue.

Organizers have also had more conversations than usual with talent agents in terms of fee negotiation.

"They're doing their best to understand and work with us as opposed to digging in their heels, which sometimes happens," says Grossman.

Still, there were some talent fees they just couldn't spring for this year.

"It's difficult to name names exactly, but artists that for a very good reason ask for, let's say, (US)$100,000, (US)$150,000 or something like that," he says. 

"When we start dealing in that range, the exchange rate really starts to be noticeable."

Grossman expects his festival may have to raise some ticket prices "a little bit."

"It's hard to say exactly, but a show that we might have been able to sell for $25 last year is maybe going to be $30 this year, that sort of thing," he says.

There is a silver lining.

Festivals focusing on domestic acts means homegrown talent has a chance to shine.

"We're having to behave a little bit like Quebec," says Snepsts. "They create a star system internally in Quebec and it's a mandate of continuing to invest in and strengthen their culture."

He adds: "I think if I was a (Canadian) talent agent, I would certainly be pounding on presenters' doors saying, 'You can't afford the U.S. dollar. How about this?'"

The low loonie may also spur more Americans to come up to Canada and attend these very festivals.

That's the thinking of the Toronto International Film Festival, which says it doesn't expect the low loonie to affect its annual movie marathon "in a significant way."

"Incoming guest travel represents a very small percentage of our budgetary spend," says Piers Handling, the festival's director and CEO.

"Indeed, we hope to experience some favourable effects from the exchange rate and welcome greater numbers of U.S. industry guests, visitors and media for the festival in 2016."

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press