As the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival heads toward a close, artistic director Cameron Bailey took time out to assess the fest, from Oscar launches to deals, and a stepped up emphasis on diversity in subject matter and female filmmakers.
DEADLINE: What have been the bright spots this year for you?
BAILEY: There have been a lot of them, it has been a great, varied program this year. We were super excited about Jackie coming into the festival and we were glad to see Searchlight pick it up here. Everybody noticed Natalie Portman’s performance and I think that’s going to be one to talk about for months to come. Films like Lady Macbeth were surprises. We knew we loved that film and it was strong but it was great to see audiences respond to it here. It just got picked by Roadside Attractions. We had a Chinese language film, I Am Not Madame Bovary, here as a World Premiere. Which is unusual as this is a major director in Feng Xiaogang who usually wouldn’t premiere at a Western festival but they brought it here, with its star, Fan Bingbing. That did really well at the Princess of Wales with our audience, and it sold as well. What has been good is to see successes beyond the ones we were expecting. We had an inkling that LaLa Land would play well, and that Lion would play well and they did. It was great to see these others as well and it was great to see Moonlight. This was a film we loved and felt strongly about. To see the outpouring of emotion at those screenings was incredible. [Director] Barry Jenkins said he had fully grown people in their 60s coming up to hug him, weeping, after watching his movie. That’s another success, and a breakthrough, as well, in the story that the film is telling.
DEADLINE: I didn’t see many movies at last year’s festival, but I was there when Spotlight got that long ovation and came out with momentum that carried it a long way. How important is it, when you choose, is the mindset you want Toronto to be the fulcrum of awards season?
BAILEY: It isn’t why we choose films, but it is something that seems to happen year after year so I guess that’s a good thing. It certainly brings us films that are looking for that pop that you’re talking about. The one thing we can offer that maybe is unique to Toronto, is the size and scale of the public audience, and their reaction here. Everybody who makes films makes them for audiences, but they’re always nervous about exposing them for the first time. That reaction is always unpredictable. You never fully know how people who’ve got nothing to do with your movie are going to react to it. Our festival, we’ve got a public audience that is around 500,000 attendees every year. We’re able to show films to people who know and love movies, but aren’t industry insiders. It’s more of a real audience reaction so a movie like Spotlight, or Room, last year, resonates as strongly as they did, or Lion or United Kingdom this year, resonate as strongly as they did, it tells the filmmakers they’ve got something genuine on their hands.
DEADLINE: Toronto excluded from the opening weekend films that previously were snuck in Telluride. How has that worked out? Some have claimed it upset a natural balance in the way awards films were introduced.
BAILEY: We’ve all got a lot more clarity on the films coming into the festival and I think that’s only a good thing. Nobody is getting surprised anymore. The other side effect of this is, for everyone having a hard time keeping up with all the films they felt they had to see in the first few days of the festival, they now have more time to do that. Films like Spotlight and Room launched on that Monday or Tuesday of the festival after the weekend full of new films. It just gives everybody a bit more breathing room, and clarity. It has been very positive.
DEADLINE: Your festival has shown some films expected to be factors in awards season, but some are still mysteries like Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn and Denzel Washington’s Fences. What’s it like behind the scenes, the competition to have those movies we might expect to factor in Oscar season, and with the competition between Toronto, Telluride, Venice and the New York Film Festival?
BAILEY: We are movie fans, so when we hear that Ang Lee has a new movie, or Tom Ford, or anyone who excited us in the past, we want that movie. But we cannot bend time here, so if a movie isn’t ready, it’s just not ready. We always ask about the films we’re most excited to see. Some will be ready to launch here in Toronto, and others won’t. We get the strongest films we can that are ready when our festival is happening.
DEADLINE: Then you have an acquisitions title like Birth of the Dragon, which is more mainstream but not with big stars, and it played Tuesday when many acquisitions execs had left, and they need subsequent screenings in L.A. What’s the feeling about that Tuesday exit, and the desire to try and get people to stay a couple days longer.
BAILEY: Every year on the festival, on the final Thursday or Friday, we have an industry dinner. There are always people from the major distributors here, key journalists are still here. We know that a lot of the big decision makers and opinion makers stay at the festival till the end. Some are just canny; one or two companies realize you can negotiate really good deals if you give it time, and we’ve got experienced players staying through Friday at least, to do business. Then, you’ve got journalists who stay to make sure they’ve seen everything. It’s impossible to see everything in four or five days.
DEADLINE: Tell me about it.
BAILEY: We know there is still a strong industry and media presence. It’s something we have to keep persuading people about, but some people just have limited time and resources available and five is the most days they can manage. But we program for an audience that is still there and is voracious and want to see movies. We do know a lot of key buyers and media are still in town.
DEADLINE: After a slow start, a bunch of deals for finished films has happened. Some trade press called it a glacial pace festival. When you’re evaluating the films that don’t have distribution, how important is the strength of the acquisitions market to your program?
BAILEY: We’re a public festival, so putting together a lineup our audience likes is the most important thing, but the reason a lot of acquisitions titles want to come to the festival is for that same audience. These things are interconnected. The sales that happen in Toronto are very important. We read the trade coverage and sometimes we have to chuckle. It’s the same arc, every year. By about Monday, you can set your watch to the pieces that say, it’s a slow market, nothing’s selling. Then by Wednesday, lots is selling, and they have to change their tune. We see this year after year. We know that sometimes sales take time to happen. We know the international market for festival films, is evolving. Sometimes films are being sold off script more and more, like Lion was to The Weinstein Company several years ago. Several might have come in as acquisitions titles in the past, but we still have films like Their Finest, or Colossal, or A United Kingdom, which are in play and come in as hot acquisitions titles. It may not happen overnight, but it may happen in a few days. So we sit and try to wait out those early premature articles, and see what the actual picture looks like.
DEADLINE: What else will distinguish this Toronto Festival as it crests towards a close?
BAILEY: The whole debate about diversity and inclusion in the film industry is something that will continue, but it hit a new level in terms of the selection we had. We had films directed by women, playing in high profile places like Roy Thomson Hall, in big galas, I hope it will show Hollywood that women can direct large scale films that will work for mass audiences. There seems to be nervousness about that in some corners of Hollywood. I think our festival helped to show that. To have films like Moonlight come in and be so embraced; to have the Season Three premiere of Transparent come in and be so embraced shows that people want a variety of stories and they want to see themselves reflected onscreen. People who make films and who buy and sell them are increasingly paying attention to that.
DEADLINE: This has been on the minds of a lot of people in Hollywood. Was there a particular emphasis on your part to be more inclusive and have more films by women and people of color, than maybe you considered in the past based solely on what you see onscreen?
BAILEY: We still evaluate them on what we see onscreen, but we are having the conversation. I really encouraged the programmers to talk about these issues of inclusion and representation. They are important in terms of how we watch movies, what stories we are evaluating and what we think of as small stories. Those debates are worth having, for anyone who watches movies. But in the end, these movies have to deliver, and every one we selected, really did deliver. The reaction to a movie like Queen of Katwe, for instance. Powerfully emotional. Mira Nair told a true story, and a powerful one, but she found a way to tell it that makes anyone react to it in a very emotional way. That was the case with numerous films here and I hope it proves a point. When we watch movies, we want to be moved and it doesn’t matter what the people look like onscreen. If the story and the performances move us, we can be moved by any story. That seems like the simplest thing in the world to grasp, but I’m glad a lot of the lineup this year helped to prove that.