TIFF Director Cameron Bailey on Battling for Oscar Contenders: "Something Special Happens in Toronto"

Cameron Bailey -Getty -H 2016
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Toronto's artistic director talks competing against Venice and Telluride for world premieres and awards-season bragging rights.

If buzzy awards-season contenders like Lionsgate's La La Land, A24's Moonlight and Fox Searchlight's Jackie launch in Venice or Telluride before continuing to Toronto for red carpet treatment, that's fine with Cameron Bailey.

The Toronto Film Festival's artistic director told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday he wants, above all else, a strong movie lineup that connects with TIFF audiences. "For me, the films we choose strike a chord with our audience. That's really all we have a say in. What happens afterwards, what happens before, is not for us to control," Bailey said.

The TIFF programming head said Toronto is still in the game to nab world premieres away from Telluride and Venice as the awards season gets underway, but scheduling a film for awards-season bragging rights isn't everything. "To have a film like United Kingdom, or Lion — films that had profound responses from thousands of people here — that was terrific. They happened to premiere here," Bailey said.

"But also Moonlight and La La Land had profound [audience] responses and they started somewhere else. To me, that's not the most important thing," he added as the festival's 41st edition gets set to wrap on Sunday with a final awards ceremony. Bailey drew a contrast between Telluride, where a small film lineup is shown to industry-dominated audiences, and Toronto, where a film festival aimed at ordinary moviegoers takes place around red carpets and screaming fans.

"Nowhere else in the world does a public audience of thousands of people react to these films in such a strong way at the beginning of their public lives. Something special happens in Toronto that doesn't happen anywhere else," he said.

Bailey's preference for receptive audiences over feuding with rival festivals for world premieres marks a change from 2014. TIFF that year issued an edict to the major studios to choose between bringing their movies to Telluride or Toronto for awards-season launches.

Hollywood wasn't happy having to choose one festival over another. Telluride, Venice and Toronto has long marked an axis of convenience for American studios and distributors to build buzz elsewhere before arriving in Toronto to officially launch an Oscar campaign.

The problem for TIFF is, in an age of social media and online bloggers, the Telluride-Venice-Toronto festival cycle clouded the premiere status of movies booked into its lineup. "What we said is we want clarity," Bailey said of that 2014 conversation with Hollywood producers.

Toronto and the major studios eventually reached a compromise that Bailey said clarifies the premiere status of movies screening here. "What matters to us is we have a lineup of the strongest films of the year, and we're able in every year to present more films that go on to awards nominations and wins than any other festival in the year. And that's been true for many years," he said.

So if the next Oscar best picture winner launched in Telluride or Toronto, Bailey isn't bothered, as long as it played in front of local festgoers. "If the public audiences respond well to films like La La Land, Lion, United Kingdom and Nocturnal Animals, that to us is what we're aiming for," he said.