Toronto Film Fest Reverses Controversial Telluride Screening Policy (Exclusive)

Toronto Skyline - H 2015
AP Images

Toronto Skyline - H 2015

In a major reversal, the Toronto International Film Festival has decided that movies that have previously screened at the Telluride Film Festival will be eligible to screen during its opening weekend — but not in any of its three highest-profile venues, the Elgin Theatre, the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall.

The new decision mostly undoes a controversial 2014 policy that had forced filmmakers and distributors to pick between the two fests. For those that sided with Telluride, their film would not be considered for a Toronto screening during the latter fest's first four days, when attendance and media coverage are at their height.

The move was spurred by frustrations shared with Toronto's organizers by filmmakers and distributors who did not want to have to choose between the two very different fests: 42-year-old Telluride, which is known for its highly selective lineup and low-key vibe; and 40-year-old Toronto, which has an exponentially larger lineup, is structured around red carpets and media opportunities (it was once known as "The Festival of Festivals"), and recast itself as an awards season player 16 years ago after launching future Oscar winner American Beauty.

Many industry insiders felt this was akin to Goliath picking on David — and uncharacteristic of famously polite Canadians (excepting ex-Toronto Mayor Rob Ford) — since Telluride is attended by so few people and press that it posed no real threat to Toronto's standing as an important commercial and awards season launching pad. This position seems to have been substantiated by Toronto's booming ticket sales and the fact that the fest's attendees voted to present its People's Choice Award to films that first played in Telluride in four of the last seven years, including each of the last two.

Telluride and Toronto reps declined to comment for this piece but are said to be satisfied with the new arrangement and look forward to putting last year's brouhaha in the rearview mirror.

Some have expressed concern that another Toronto-related controversy may be brewing. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that the fest will this year introduce a jury-determined award, to be presented with a $25,000 cash prize, for which "up to 12 films of high artistic merit that demonstrate a strong directorial vision by significant international filmmakers" will be eligible. The language of the fest's press release was interpreted by many to suggest that those films needed to be in a foreign language, but fest director Piers Handling, in an interview with Canadian press, indicated it could also include English-language films from filmmakers born abroad, and did not address whether or not films that wished to compete for that jury prize, like many others, would be forbidden from screening first at other juried festivals.

This was thought to be of particular concern to the organizers of the Venice Film Festival, a juried fest which commences just before Toronto does, and which has heretofore held the world premieres of a number of awards contenders directed by filmmakers from outside of North America that subsequently went on to screen at Telluride and/or Toronto — among them Steve McQueen's Shame (2011), Stephen Frears' Philomena (2013) and Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman.

But knowledgeable sources indicate that Toronto will not limit that contest to world premieres, and while it will consider English-language films from international filmmakers for this sidebar, those films will not be of the Oscar-bait variety.