I bid farewell to the Toronto International Film Festival last week. For a decade, I was a regular at the giant gathering of a film fleet that has met every fall since 1976. But when the annual demand for last year’s clips arrived a few months ago, I was busy and let it go. Then on Wednesday came a sweet, very Canadian reminder that I hadn’t filled out a request for media credentials. With matching sweetness, I replied that I had been worn thin by the festival cycle, and would somehow enjoy this one from Los Angeles (where publicists are already offering a peek at their contenders).
In truth, the world has been changing around that big Toronto festival; and this year’s iteration, which runs from Sept. 7 to Sept. 17, could do much to decide its strategic future. Pressed by competing festivals in Venice, Telluride, New York and elsewhere, Toronto had already tightened rules to assure the premiere status of first-week galas. Now, TIFF will trim its program by 20 percent, to concentrate more attention on a smaller number of movies. The full festival schedule is to be disclosed on Aug. 22. But the core question, which can only be answered with the upcoming program announcements, is already apparent. Can a vast festival with hundreds of entries and nearly half a million attendees hold its own in an awards game that has shifted from the large, audience-friendly movies that do well in Toronto, toward the smaller, more specialized films that may have an easier time in the salon-like venues of Telluride or the critic-rich environment of New York?
Through both pluck and luck, Toronto last year preserved its status as an Oscar bellwether. Thanks in part to a diversity push by the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey, TIFF in its opening days screened both the year’s biggest loser, Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation, and the ultimate Oscar winner, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Both films had been seen at other festivals. But Parker’s appearance at a press conference in Toronto was the turning point in an Oscar campaign that saw a front-runner become an also-ran, as public debate over a past rape charge, of which Parker was acquitted, overwhelmed the movie.
At the same time, Moonlight, seen days before in Telluride, won quiet approval in Toronto—though it was overshadowed by La La Land, which screened in Toronto after a Venice premiere and a Telluride booster, until a few minutes after the last envelope was opened on Oscar night. (La La Land won Toronto’s People’s Choice award; Moonlight won nothing at the festival.)
That Toronto was pivotal for all three films without having actually introduced any of them says much about the festival’s function: It is less about discovery than display.
But it won’t be easy for a still-massive festival with large venues and a celebrity-hungry audience to deliver seasonal drama of that sort as companies reduce their investment in ambitious, star-filled contenders like Cloud Atlas, The Master, Up In The Air, Gravity, The Wrestler, The Descendants, W. E., Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fifth Estate, Rush, and others—all presented with varying degrees of success but much expensive hoopla in Toronto.
In fact, those films were dreadnoughts, like the ships that fought off Jutland during World War I. For decades, Toronto was a harbor large enough to hold them. But the modern awards navy depends heavily on submarines like Moonlight, Hell Or High Water, Brooklyn, Room and such. With or without big-name stars, those can pop up anywhere—Venice, Telluride, New York, Toronto, or even here at home in Los Angeles. And it will take increasingly sharp-eyed festival directors, and viewers, to spot them.