Toronto, Venice fests at peace

Handling says there's 'zero friction' despite date shift by the Italians

Toronto International Film Festival co-director Piers Handling says to blame the calendar, not Venice boss Marco Mueller, for a decision by the Italian festival to shift its dates next year closer to those of Toronto.

"There is zero friction between Toronto and Venice," Handling said Saturday after Danny Boyle's high-octane Indian drama "Slumdog Millionaire" picked up the People's Choice Award in Toronto, voted on by festival audiences.

Handling insisted that Toronto and Venice will continue on the same calendar cycle followed for more than 15 years, with his event keeping to its customary kickoff on the first Thursday after Labor Day.

Toronto started this year on Sept. 4, and Labor Day will fall on Sept. 7 in 2009. "Some of Marco's comments in Venice have perhaps been misconstrued to (mean) 2011," when the rival festival will open Sept. 2, Handling said. He insisted FIAPF, the regulating organization for international film festivals, would not allow Venice to park on Toronto's dates without justification.

He added that FIAPF sent him an e-mail after the media in late August predicted a showdown over studio and U.S. indie pictures between Toronto and Venice in 2009 after years in which both festivals cooperated to select films and dates.

"(FIAPF is) very aware of the issue," Handling said.

His comments came as Warner Bros./Fox Searchlight's attention-getter "Slumdog Millionaire," a drama about a teen boy in India who attempts to become a millionaire on a TV game show, picked up the audience award after a world premiere in Toronto.

Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later") didn't attend the Toronto awards luncheon, and was represented by actress and co-star Freida Pinto.

"It's my first premiere, my first time dealing with the press, and now it's my first award," Pinto told the luncheon audience.

" 'Slumdog Millionaire' is a film about an underdog who believes in something," she added.

The People's Choice Award is often an indicator of future Academy Award nominations, with past recipients including "Life Is Beautiful," "Hotel Rwanda" and best-picture winners "Chariots of Fire" and "American Beauty."

Additionally, Rodrigue Jean's "Lost Song," a film about an Inuit woman and her grandson trapped on a remote island, received the best Canadian feature film award as Toronto wrapped its 10-day run Saturday.

Other winners included the Discovery trophy for Steve McQueen's "Hunger," a portrait of the 1981 IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, while the FIPRESCI prize went to Derick Martini's "Lymelife," a family drama set in late-1970s Long Island.

Film critics also gave Steve Jacob's "Disgrace," which stars John Malkovich, the FIPRESCI trophy for best film entered in the Special Presentations sidebar.

Elsewhere, the best Canadian first feature went to "Before Tomorrow," by Marie-Helene Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu, while Chris Chong Chan Fui picked up the best Canadian short film prize for "Block B."

Handling declared Toronto's 2008 edition a success, not least for a film lineup that won praise from distributors after a tough year for their business.

"The buyers sensed an upbeat feeling and that there was product out there that they could buy. There were major deals done here, and some deals will get done after the festival," he said.

Handling said that the 33rd installment will be remembered as a festival of actors and performances, pointing to awards buzz for Mickey Rourke's performance in "The Wrestler," Anne Hathaway's in "Rachel Getting Married" and the star turn by Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky." (partialdiff)