TIFF: Fest of Both Worlds

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"The Toronto International Film Festival is no longer the people's film festival."

That's how longtime Toronto Sun film writer Bruce Kirkland summed up the state of the Toronto fest in a front page op-ed a year ago. It was a bold, unflinching commentary on a film event that has, for the most part, skillfully avoided drama over the years. But Kirkland didn't stop there. In lamenting how far he feels the fest has veered off course, the scribe declared that original co-founder Dusty Cohl "would be appalled."

"Dusty, the gruff yet big-hearted conscience of the festival for its first 32 years, would have railed against turning it into an elitist corporate spectacle, as it has now become," wrote Kirkland, adding that even Cohl's widow Joan is "certainly unhappy about this breach of trust."

That, of course, was before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in June that it was increasing the field of best picture nominees from five to 10. The announcement was certainly good news for Hollywood, but for Toronto purists it rang alarm bells. Already fed up with how TIFF's status as the unofficial launch of Oscar season has tainted their beloved film event, observers wonder if TIFF organizers will feel even more pressure to cater to Hollywood, thus turning a traditionally egalitarian, fan-friendly event into yet another glitzy Tinseltown shmoozfest for suits and stars.

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"It's a zoo," one longtime attendee says. "You have people lining up outside Roy Thomson Hall to see (Hollywood) movies that will be out in the theaters in 10 days."

Adds Serge Losique, director of the rival Montreal World Film Festival: "Hollywood dominates the Toronto festival. When you have big American stars, what's left for small-country films?"

Hollywood insiders, of course, are loath to complain about a fest that has been so good to them. Shrugging off the suggestion that TIFF has lost its way -- or, at the very least, that it's beginning to look quite different than it did just five years ago -- many point to the come-from-nowhere Oscar triumph of last year's audience award winner "Slumdog Millionaire" as proof that TIFF hasn't completely gone Hollywood.

"'Slumdog Millionaire' is an art house movie that blew up," says Jim Stern, a Toronto veteran and CEO of Endgame Entertainment. "I don't look at it and think, 'That was a commercial choice for Toronto.' The people who run Toronto are very smart. They're not going to think, 'We're going to take that commercial film now that there's 10 nomination slots.' "

While that might be true, when asked to comment on this year's selection, even festival co-director Cameron Bailey views the lineup within the context of how various fest titles might fare on Oscar night.

"It's a long time between now and February, and I'm not a betting man," he says. "But we have a number of films that can get nominations."

This, of course, is music to Hollywood's ears, but Bob Berney of newly launched distribution outfit Apparition argues that Toronto is still less about manufacturing Oscar buzz than making the most of positive industry whispers. "It's more a subtle stirring of what's there," he insists. "You can't make it happen."

Berney cites the upcoming festival screening of Jane Campion's literary romance "Bright Star" as an example of how Toronto can provide a valuable glimpse into how a film is going to perform with both the public and the press. Citing how Oscar buzz began when "Bright Star" screened at the Festival de Cannes in May, Berney says the reaction of a savvy North American audience in Toronto will help confirm that Cannes was no fluke.

"It's early, and you want to see if the theory works out," he says.

At first glance, "Bright Star" might appear to be just the kind of sleeper that could use a boost in Toronto. But then again, a period romance directed by an acclaimed former Oscar nominee coming off a strong showing in Cannes is not exactly the stuff of an underdog. Of course it all depends on how the film performs, but a cynic might view the film's selection in Toronto as nothing more than the latest stop on an a well-charted awards season publicity campaign.

For a film without any pre-Toronto buzz, the stakes are much higher, and connecting with both the press and the public is crucial. "We don't have the resources that a studio film has," says Dean Zanuck, a producer on "Get Low," an indie pic booked into Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 12. "Toronto is not this huge press junket with a September release on 3,000 screens."

If there's one area where building Oscar buzz at the fest appears to satisfy both the suits and the cineasts, it's among foreign-language entries that can easily get lost in the shuffle. Indeed, such past TIFF audience award winners as "Amelie," "Life Is Beautiful," "Hotel Rwanda," "Whale Rider" and "Totsi" all launched effective Oscar campaigns following their success in Toronto.

"Toronto may be the first time that the international and notably U.S. press is going to see a film, and therein lies the secret to the Oscars: A strong reception in Toronto (means) a U.S. distributor picks it up and then they will create a strong Oscar campaign," says John Kochman, the director of Unifrance USA, which promotes French cinema.

But with five new slots open in the best picture category, some wonder if small, foreign-language titles will continue to shine amid the increasingly bright lights of Hollywood fare.

For TIFF Group CEO Piers Handling, a wider Oscar spectrum "cuts both ways." Handling argues that while commercially driven tentpole movies like "The Dark Knight" will also get a lift into the broader best picture race, there is now more of an opportunity for indies and foreign-language titles to land best picture noms, and Toronto can play a larger role in making that happen. "You'll see some star-driven films that get nominations, but not for best picture," he says. "(Films) like 'Kinsey' and 'Hotel Rwanda' (will now) get a chance to move up to the best film category."

The question is, will that actually happen, and to what extent will Toronto play a part? Jere Hausfater, CEO of Essential Entertainment, says that while it's simply too early to tell if five extra Oscar slots will have an adverse effect on TIFF, if the decision is indeed going to have an impact on the fest circuit, it all starts in Toronto.

"Toronto is the start of the cycle for the new year," he says. "Until we get a feel for what 10 Oscar nominations means, there is no way to correlate it to Toronto or any film festival. But it is more relevant to Toronto than the others because a lot of the Oscar candidates are screened in Toronto. It is still a great platform to launch a movie if it has Oscar potential."

Etan Vlessing in Toronto contributed to this report.
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