When a studio is looking to get traction on their awards season contender, there’s no better start at this early point in the fall than the Toronto International Film Festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award.
The top prize at the Great White North cinema fest has often been a predictor of Oscar’s Best Picture, or notable contenders, i.e. in the last 20 years, the TIFF People’s Choice awards winner has continued on to win Oscar’s top prize 5x including last year’s Nomadland, 2018’s Green Book, 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, 2010’s King’s Speech and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire.
However, this year, three of the fall’s most buzziest awards season titles, and critically praised –Warner Bros./Legendary’s Dune (87% on Rotten Tomatoes), Focus Features’ Last Night in Soho (73%) and NEON’s Spencer (88%)— aren’t able to compete for TIFF’s top award. Check it out here. This despite the fact that other awards season titles such as Universal’s Dear Evan Hansen, Focus Features’ Belfast, Searchlight’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and Netflix’s The Starling, The Power of the Dog, and The Guilty are completely in the mix. Note all voting for the People’s Choice Award is online this year due to the pandemic; there aren’t any orange shirt TIFF volunteers handing out paper ballots after screenings.
So what’s going on? Essentially, if a studio or filmmaker wants to compete for the People’s Choice Award this year, the fest is requiring them to screen their movies in the Official Selection that screen in-person and on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox between Sept. 9, 12 noon EST and Sept. 17, 11:59PM EST. We hear that the respective filmmakers behind Dune, Last Night in Soho and Spencer –Denis Villeneuve, Edgar Wright and Pablo Larrain– didn’t want their movies made available on TIFF’s digital portal. They are all intended to be big screen experiences.
In addition, Spencer isn’t an official selection, it’s a special event, which means it ducks consideration for the People’s Choice Award. Ditto for Dune. Meanwhile Last Night in Soho had a Gala Presentation.
All of this is quite interesting at a time when theatrical is wrestling from the dominance of streaming; that a festival would insist on both theatrical and digital viewings. In TIFF’s eyes, it’s the most democratic means of getting the widest possible number of votes for movies given the fact that their screenings and premiere are operating at roughly 50% capacity in-person (though the premiere of The Eyes of Tammy Faye was quite packed in the orchestra section on Sunday Night at the Princess of Wales Theatre).
In regards to Dune, it’s been screening post its Venice Film Festival World Premiere in Imax here in Toronto; given the fact that it was shot with the large format exhibitor’s cameras. Even though the movie wasn’t showing on TIFF’s digital portal, the movie will be available to stream on HBO Max in the U.S. and on PVOD here in Canada when it hits theaters on Oct. 22. While the battle between Legendary and Warners has been splashed in the headlines about the pic’s theatrical fate; Villeneuve had said that it’s time to get the film out, that “the enemy right now is the pandemic,” and is encouraging everyone to see the pulse-pounding sci-fi epic in a cinema.
One sigh of relief that Dune, Last Night in Soho (opening Oct. 29) and Spencer (Nov. 5) can have in the interim before their theatrical releases is odds are they won’t be widely pirated. While TIFF is against piracy, and runs a disclaimer before each movie (which prompts audience members in the crowd to hysterically yell out “Rrrrr!” like a pirate), a couple of this year’s fest titles are already showing up on piracy sites like Kickasstorrents, i.e. Netflix’s Antoine Fuqua title The Guilty and Jane Campion Benedict Cumberbatch title The Power of the Dog. The Guilty made its world premiere here at TIFF while The Power of the Dog bowed at Venice, and then Telluride.
Note, TIFF isn’t the only festival to implement a hybrid, theatrical and digital format; Sundance and Tribeca have also followed suit. TIFF and Sundance have taken precautions in teaming with Web Sheriff to minimize internet piracy.
TIFF’s People’s Choice award, even when it wasn’t a bellwether for Oscar’s Best Picture, has a history of selecting top awards contenders in years past, i.e. La La Land, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Silver Linings Playbook, Room among several other titles.