TIFF's Brutal First Year: "No One Came" Amid Hollywood Snub

Dusty_Cohl_Fred_Williamson_Joan_Cohl - H 2015
Courtesy of The Film Reference Library

Dusty_Cohl_Fred_Williamson_Joan_Cohl - H 2015

The original founders of the festival — which now boasts an annual impact of over $170 million, not to mention acts as the Oscars' prime launching pad — remember the ignominy of getting off the ground in 1976.

Well before Toronto's red carpet was overtaken by A-list glitz and its place secured in awards history with premieres for Chariots of Fire, The Big Chill and American Beauty, the festival's three co-founders failed to procure even one major studio movie for their inaugural edition in 1976.

Dusty Cohl, Toronto politico Bill Marshall and architect-turned-producer Henk Van der Kolk had hatched a dream on the Carlton terrace in Cannes: to bring American stars and the best of European cinema to a sophisticated Toronto audience.

But Hollywood showed zero interest in cannibalizing its domestic market: Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory was promised by the director for opening night, but United Artists head Eric Pleskow overrode the offer. Warren Beatty's Canadian cousin, Hollywood producer David MacLeod (Ishtar), was supposed to deliver Jack Nicholson, Julie Christie, Martin Scorsese and Chinatown scribe Robert Towne, but they were no-shows.The fest also was panned by the Toronto media, inducing panic among the founders, who had financed it on personal loans.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to insiders about the notorious first "Festival of Festivals."

Marshall We went to Cannes where Dusty greased the staff and got us the A-table on the Carlton hotel terrace for 5 p.m. cocktails. We convinced the trade correspondents to come to the wonderful, new film festival in Toronto in October.

Toronto Film Critics Association Founder Brian Johnson The [co-founders] courted the media at a time when Roger Ebert drank a lot. If you want coverage, you buy it. They did a very good job of that.

Jeanne Moreau at the 1976 screening for her directorial debut, Lumiere. The premiere took place at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere theater, which sits atop stilts over Lake Ontario. Says Marshall: "We got Ontario Place because Ontario told us that it had no money to give us and offered us this dog of a waterfront park that it could not sell to anyone. We made Ontario Place famous internationally."

Van der Kolk The money needed for financing was slow in coming: We were working in a vacuum, and it was difficult to convince government and industry alike that we were worthy. Since we had a good relationship with our bank manager, he agreed to lend $125,000 on Bill's and my personal signatures.

Marshall The Hollywood majors were hugely opposed and even refused to send films that studios and producers had promised.

Toronto Film Festival CEO Piers Handling Everyone knew that acting talent attracted media attention. They had that aspiration in the first year. Just no one came.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis, who screened 90 seconds from an unreleased King Kong (1976), being interviewed.

Van der Kolk We did get the independent filmmakers.

Harlan County U.S.A. director Barbarba Kopple I picked the film up from the editor, took it to Toronto. The screening was full. They loved the film. I was thrilled, because I had such little support in the making of it.

Marshall Kopple credits Toronto with helping raise the profile of Harlan County on its way to an Oscar. There was talk about Toronto, even then, influencing the awards-season voting. We gave [major studios] a huge bollocking after the festival, and it was reinforced by Charles Champlin writing a famous [Los Angeles Times] column titled "Hollywood, You Blew It!" that described me excoriating empty directors chairs with studio heads names on them.

Toronto Sun film critic George Anthony The second year, we got our Hollywood films. It was Warner Bros. who took a flyer on Toronto, basically. We had Bloodbrothers, Robert Milligan's film with a very young Richard Gere. We had Claudia Weill's Girlfriends and Time After Time with Malcolm McDowell.

Actor Darren McGavin at a news conference for the documentary he directed, American Reunion, about a 50th high school reunion.

Handling The real breakthrough came when they did the tributes: [in 1982,] Scorsese, [in 1983, Robert] Duvall and in 1984, Beatty. That became the story of that festival. Nicholson came. Diane Keaton came. The festival had been knocking on Hollywood's door, and it opened slowly. But Beatty was enormous. So that was the year the festival turned the corner, year nine.

Former film critic William Wolf I don't know if the founders envisioned how big it would be eventually. The first years have to be remembered as an enthusiastic place to get a festival started. Over the years, the vision [of the festival's influence] turned out to be prophetic.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.