Before leaving The New York Times in July, I heard rumblings about a novel idea that was being floated in the newsroom about plans for the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival: How about covering it from a Canadian point of view?.
Eh? In years past, that would have meant figuring out where George Clooney was hanging in Yorkville. This year, it could mean stalking Denzel Washington or Ethan Hawke, stars of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, which has a world premiere on Thursday, September 8. Or it might demand attention to Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit, which screens on September 12. Set in Canada and shot by an esteemed Canadian filmmaker, that one tells the story of a caribou hunter who follows his father’s spirit helper in a quest to reclaim his kidnapped wife and daughter, circa 1913. It is one of 76 Canadian films screening at a festival that counted 1,240 Canadian submissions among 6,933 entries from around the world.
A quicker way into the Canadian thing might be a stop at the Critical Drinking Pre-Fest Fiesta, sponsored by the Toronto Film Critics Association. The Toronto critics are gathering on Wednesday, September 7, at the Milagro Restaurante Mexicano y Cantina to sip theme cocktails called “Akira’s Tears.” It might have something to do with Silent Hill and the Japanese composer Akira Yamaoka. They are a cosmopolitan lot, those Torontonians. That’s why they call it the Toronto International Film Festival.
The noodling about a Canadian point of view clearly says more about the state of The New York Times than it does about Canadians, who see their premier film festival as a window on the rest of the world, including, but not limited to, us. The nudge comes as the Times trims its coverage of local New York-area businesses and cultural institutions, as Jeremy Gerard notes, while expanding its quest for clicks, paid or otherwise.
Increasingly, the Times and its powerful audience development team live by what some there have called “the funnel.” At its top, the funnel sucks in — or tries to suck in — tens of millions of free viewers every month via Facebook, mobile phone apps or an ungated quota of stories on the home page. At its bottom, with luck, a small percentage of those viewers, one in thousands, converts to a paid subscription. To keep the action moving, the Times needs an expanding pool of “looky-loos” at the top. That’s where Canada comes in: It has a lot of smart, educated, English-speaking readers who might give The New York Times an extra glance during the film festival but wouldn’t have much interest in those Westchester theaters and art galleries now being cut.
Still, most of those Canadian viewers seem interested in looking at movies exactly the way audiences in the United States look at them: with an eye toward provocative subjects, hot stars and moving stories — possibly including Maliglutit, which is s tribute to John Ford’s The Searchers. And that probably means The New York Times, along with the rest of us, will be covering the festival in pretty much the same, free-ranging way it has been covered by a large, attentive media corps for the past four decades.