As a former film festival director, I can imagine the weary sighs that went around the offices of the Toronto International Film Festival this morning, with the publication of a Variety piece under a scare-headline: IS TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL LOSING ITS AWARDS MOJO?
It’s the kind of clickbait the trade papers love to run: the opinion-piece whose devastating implications are only partially masked by its air of innocent enquiry. And while the story that follows is a little more nuanced than that headline would suggest—turns out it is, but it’s also not—it does raise a number of interesting issues, for Toronto and for the industry.
To explain: for the past decade, TIFF has sought to position itself as a ‘platform festival,’ a venue for showcasing high-profile new features—mostly American, but some British as well—and fast-tracking them for awards contention, at the Golden Globes and Oscars. It’s a well-worn narrative. The film screens. Audiences applaud. (And trust me: no audiences are more indiscriminate in their standing ovations than Toronto audiences—they could get a paraplegic on his feet, clapping wildly.) The critics slaver (hopefully). TV spots are filmed. And little by little the requisite ‘buzz’ is created.
"I’ve never been convinced that the public care less—or even notice—a film’s festival provenance; they just want to see the movie when it’s released"
I went to Toronto each September for over 10 years. I can’t say I miss it—the city or the festival. The former is bloodless and sterile (a friend of mine, another Toronto veteran, calls it “the city that never sleeps together”), and the latter, as arguably its most significant cultural fixture, way too big and sprawling. This year, as TIFF director/CEO Piers Handling notes in the Variety piece, it will screen between 260 and 300 feature films, a figure which mocks the notion of curation… or even simple assessment, since not even the most dedicated visitor, doggedly watching movies from morning till midnight, can hope to see more than a fraction of what’s on offer. (This might, of course, be the point.)
And much of what it is offering, of course, has already been offered up elsewhere. Toronto began as a ‘festival of festivals’—that was its name, originally: The Festival of Festivals—and it still cherry-picks the best works from the big A-list European events. (I used to joke to a TIFF programmer I knew, on the day Cannes announced its lineup, that Toronto had just confirmed 30 percent of its selection.)
For inhabitants of the city, it’s a godsend: all the best of recent world cinema, offered up in one huge chunk, over 11 days. But for buyers, sales agents, programmers, producers and critics, it’s a cocaine- and panic-fuelled nightmare. Especially when there’s now a weird kind of reverse-race in effect, to actually attend for as short a time as possible. Typical of the hysteria in which the film industry likes to operate, the opening four days, from Thursday to Sunday, are all that matter—after that first weekend, the suits seem to push one another aside in their haste to get back to LA, the hotels and restaurants empty out, and the festival becomes a much more sedate, rather less crowded affair. (Little wonder that this year Toronto announced that any major film not willing to give them a world premiere would not screen in the first four days of its program.)
In such an environment, only the strongest, highest-profile, most commercially-viable properties survive. For a filmmaker like Christian Petzold to make his world premiere there, as he’s doing this year with his post-WWII drama Phoenix, seems to me an act of suicidal miscalculation, since it’s more than likely that film—small, subtle, German—will garner far less attention than it would have at Cannes or Venice, events rather more nurturing for foreign-language and arthouse filmmaking. Likewise, François Ozon, also world-preeming his latest, The New Girlfriend: he’s a big name in Cannes, but in North America he’s just another Frenchman. And as one French producer remarked to me a few years ago, only at Toronto could Roman Polanski present a new movie—2005’s Oliver Twist—and no one would notice.
I’m curious as to how Tim Gray can claim, in his article, that Venice is ‘gaining steam’; in fact it seems like that event is growing more irrelevant to awards consideration with every new edition. It’s simply too expensive to attend—meaning less press go, which in turn means studios don’t bother sending their films there. Last year they screened Gravity and Philomena, two of the key titles of the fall season; this year, it’s a rather more George-and-Ringo-level selection. Telluride, meanwhile, seems more and more like a high-altitude country club, a members-only preview for rich white guys.
But New York, now under the stewardship of respected film scholar and former critic Kent Jones, is the dark horse, here: making a series of quiet, determined encroachments. After years of predictable, by-the-numbers programming (new film from Hong Sang-soo? Check. New Haneke? natürlich), this year’s NYFF will world premiere the latest films from David Fincher (his much-awaited thriller Gone Girl) and Paul Thomas Anderson (the Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice). Both major awards contenders, and both films Venice and Toronto would have dearly loved to unveil.
The real question is: exactly how much are those films dependent upon a festival platform to succeed? Each comes from a recognised auteur (or as close to one as an industrial system like Hollywood will allow), and each is based on a bestselling novel. Pundits have been tipping them for award nominations for months. Barring lousy execution, both will make money. I’ve never been convinced that the public care less—or even notice—a film’s festival provenance; they just want to see the movie when it’s released. And while some bad reviews can harm a film’s early chances, a successful opening weekend can reignite even a faltering Oscar campaign.
But there’s also a deeper problem, which is the zero-sum game concocted by studios and sustained by certain useful critics. Whereby it’s awards season all the time. No sooner had the closing credits ended on Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, at Cannes in May, than critics were touting the supposed inevitability of Steve Carrell’s Oscar nomination—a forecast which, though deserved (it’s a great performance), seemed to me a little premature.
The fact is, most of these supposed awards hopefuls will surely disappoint, when seen. Remember August: Osage County, from last year? Or Mandela? Or The Fifth Estate? Each year Toronto unspools at least a dozen supposed Oscar ‘certainties’, who arrive glittering with early hype (much of it from the festival itself, understandably keen to assert its role as a tastemaker), only to turn out to be complete turds. Of course, TIFF is so vast, and so hectic, that these misfires are quickly forgotten, just in time for this year’s crop. And lo, the circle remains unbroken.