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Toronto: Audience Award Win Solidifies '12 Years a Slave' as Film to Beat in Oscar Race (Analysis)

Steve McQueen's movie about American slavery is following in the footsteps of numerous Academy Awards winners, including "Slumdog Millionaire."

12 Years a Slave

TORONTO -- Sunday afternoon's announcement that Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave has been chosen by Toronto Film Festival moviegoers as the winner of this year's TIFF People's Choice Award is a major development in this year's Oscar race.

The Toronto moviegoers who decide the prize, the fest's highest honor, are generally very in tune with the Academy. Indeed, TIFF's audience award has been one of the better harbingers of Oscar success over the 35 years in which it has been presented, with almost every one of its honorees going on to garner some measure of Academy recognition. Collectively, they have accounted for 113 Oscar nominations, including 11 for best picture -- most recently Silver Linings Playbook last year -- and nine for best foreign language film. Forty of those nominations resulted in Oscar wins, including four for best picture (Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech). This has helped to cement TIFF’s reputation as one of the first important stops on the awards trail, along with the Telluride Film Festival that precedes it by a week.

FILM REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's stark drama about slavery in 19th century America has now been cheered by not only critics and pundits -- who have championed it loudly ever since its world premiere at Telluride, where I first caught it -- but also by the general public. That suggests that the Academy, whose taste which resembles the latter as often as it does the former, will probably be able to get on board with the film. There have been those who have argued that some Oscar voters -- potentially a significant number -- might shy away from even watching a film that is as disturbing and upsetting as this one is. But others have countered that most members will feel a duty to see and champion it as a well-made and important reminder about the darkest chapter in our nation's history, which continues to impact our society to this day. Sunday's announcement makes me even more inclined to side with that theory, setting up the film for such possible nominations as best picture and director as well as noms for its actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o.

The one potential downside to this news for 12 Years a Slave is that it only further hypes a film that already has been the subject of much hyperbole, creating expectations among the general public -- which will not even get to see it until Oct. 18 -- that may prove impossible to meet. Even before Sunday's news, one blogger declared, "Suspend the betting, close the books and notify the engraver: I've just seen what will surely be this year's Best Picture winner, and it's 12 Years a Slave."  He earned several public smackdowns, including several from fans of the film who feared he was undercutting its chances.

Then again, Fox Searchlight has been down this road before: Slumdog Millionaire played at Telluride and came to Toronto and won the TIFF audience award, and then opened in mid-November and still wound up winning the best picture Oscar and a heap of others. In this sense, if not others, backers of 12 Years a Slave have to hope that history repeats itself.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg