Toronto Film Festival's Anti-Telluride Policy May Be Backfiring (Analysis)

Longtime Telluride friends Jason Reitman and Noah Baumbach appear to be siding with Toronto, but many other major filmmakers are accepting later screening dates from Toronto or skipping it altogether in order to attend Telluride.

The Toronto International Film Festival's announcement this week of a chunk of its 2014 lineup was the first demonstrable proof that distributors — and major filmmakers — are taking sides in an ugly dispute between Toronto and the Telluride Film Festival.

Tuesday's announcement indicates, and multiple sources confirm, that Jason Reitman and Noah Baumbach, who both have histories of debuting films at Telluride, are abandoning that event and will be taking their new films — Reitman's Men, Women and Children (Paramount) and Baumbach's While We're Young (still seeking a U.S. distributor) — exclusively to Toronto. Meanwhile, Telluride has snagged the world premiere of Wild, the new film by Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, according to sources. Vallee debuted his last film, Dallas Buyers Club, at Toronto, but will unveil his new film, a Fox Searchlight release, in the Rockies before it then goes on to screen in Toronto. Both fests are undoubtedly ticked, but reps for both Telluride and Toronto declined to comment for this piece.

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The brouhaha started last January, when Toronto's artistic director Cameron Bailey declared that films that play Telluride, which precedes Toronto by a few days, will not be permitted to screen at Toronto earlier than the fest's first Monday — five days after its festivities get underway, by which time many journalists will have already begun to depart. The move came in response to the fact that many distributors have previously accepted invitations to hold their official North American or world premieres in Toronto, but then screened the films as unofficial "sneak previews" in Telluride. Toronto, which has been in business since 1975, offers glitzy red carpet screenings of hundreds of films attracting throngs of moviegoers and journalists, while Telluride, which dates back to 1973, provides an intimate gathering of industry and media elites in its remote Rocky Mountains setting.

The motivation for Toronto's power-play was that fest's desire to retain its claim to being an important award season launching pad, which it first attained 15 years ago when it premiered American Beauty (1999), which went on to win the best picture Oscar. Toronto's organizers resented the fact that, in recent years, films such as Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King's Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), Argo (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) — each of which went on to win the best picture Oscar — were first seen by the North American press in Telluride, undercutting, in their view, some of the buzz and excitement that would otherwise have accompanied their Toronto unveilings.  

By announcing its new policy, Toronto, which takes place this year from Sept. 4-14, intended to dissuade distributors from taking their awards contenders to Telluride, which will run from Aug. 28-Sept. 1, and to penalize those that do -- but that appears to be backfiring. Many — including even Canadian filmmakers — are calling Toronto's bluff by heading to Telluride first and either accepting a later Toronto screening date or skipping Toronto altogether.

Telluride doesn't reveal its selections until the day the fest gets underway, so it's impossible to say, with certainty, what will be playing there. However, this year, for the first time, it's possible to work backwards from Toronto's first announcement — which identified which movies on its lineup it considers world, international, North American or Canadian premieres.

By labeling a film a Canadian premiere, Toronto was sending a signal it was expected to stop off in Telluride before heading north. The following films, for example, were identified as such: Morten Tyldum's Benedict Cumberbatch-starrer The Imitation Game, which is said to be The Weinstein Co.'s highest-testing contender this season; Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater, which was produced by Scott Rudin; and several films that already made their world premieres during the first-half of 2014, Sony Classics' Whiplash (which bagged both the audience and grand jury prizes at Sundance) and Foxcatcher and Mr. Turner (both award winners at Cannes).

While Toronto has several more program announcements coming, it was also telling which films it did not mention. Take Fox Searchlight's Birdman. The New York Film Festival got into the act by announcing Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's dramedy as its closing night screening, but it did not characterize it as either a North American or U.S. premiere. That suggests that film's first stateside screening, after it opens the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 27, will be in Telluride, to which Inarritu has brought two previous films en route to Toronto, Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010), and which he has attended even when he didn't have films of his own playing there. It may well follow the course taken last year by All Is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska, all of which went to Telluride, skipped Toronto and then played New York. J.C. Chandor, who wrote and directed All Is Lost, has another film this year, A Most Violent Year, which could follow the same pattern, since he liked Telluride last year and because his new film is set in and was shot in the Big Apple.

It's also a pretty safe bet that Werner Herzog, who has premiered dozens of films at Telluride, will debut his Queen of the Desert (still seeking a U.S. distributor) at the fest, as well.

Toronto, meanwhile, has claimed the world premieres of several high-profile awards hopefuls. Among them: David Dobkin's The Judge (Warner Bros.), in which Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall are said to be great; The Good Lie (Warner Bros.), the first English-language film from Monsieur Lazhar director Philippe Falardeau and one of two Witherspoon vehicles at the fest, along with Wild; James Marsh's The Theory of Everything (Focus Features), in which Eddie Redmayne gives a performance that insiders are comparing to Daniel Day-Lewis' in My Left Foot; and Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, a longtime pet project for star Jake Gyllenhaal, who has starred in many films that started in Toronto.

But the most symbolically significant "get" announced by Toronto is probably the world premiere of Reitman's Men, Women and Children, since Reitman has previously debuted all of his films except Young Adult, which skipped the fest circuit altogether, at Telluride before bringing them to Toronto. That includes eventual best picture nominees Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009), as well as Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Labor Day (2013). Because the Reitman family is not only Canadian but also big financial backers of TIFF, one can assume that he felt somewhat obligated to show full support for his family's hometown fest. (Of course, a film starring Adam Sandler is also likely to be more accepted at commercial Toronto than artsy Telluride.)

Toronto also announced that Map to the Stars, the latest film from another noted Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg, will have its North American premiere at its event -- which was not too surprising, since apart from Spider (2002) and A Dangerous Method (2013), Cronenberg has usually unveiled his films in his home country. Apart from Reitman's film, the only other Telluride "loss" that can be attributed, with a fair degree of certainty, to Toronto's controversial new policy is Baumbach's While We're Young, which will also be a TIFF world premiere. Baumbach previously brought Margo at the Wedding (2007) and Frances Ha (2012) to Telluride before taking them to Toronto. His film's backers may have concluded that it will stand a better shot of finding a good distribution deal at the deal-centric Toronto than the more low-key Telluride -- but only if it plays at Toronto during the fest's opening days, which would not have been possible had it first screened at Telluride.

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Meanwhile, the distributors of several other presumptive awards contenders have yet to announce any festival move they may be plotting. Among the most interesting to keep an eye out for: Paramount's Interstellar and Selma; Universal's Unbroken; Disney's Into the Woods; Sony's Fury; Universal's Trash; The Weinstein Co.'s Big Eyes; and A24's A Most Violent Year. (Several others — Warner Bros.' American Sniper and In the Heart of the Sea, Fox Searchlight's Far from the Madding Crowd and The Weinstein Co.'s Carol — may or may not come out this year.)

Regardless of where their films will be playing, the distributors with whom I've spoken agree on one thing: they are angry at Toronto for forcing a choice in the first place. While most understand Toronto's frustrations with Telluride, they also insist that Telluride poses no threat to Toronto, since only a relatively few people see the films in Telluride. Conversely, Toronto, by enacting this policy, clearly intends to pose an existential threat to Telluride, which is a fest beloved by distributors and filmmakers for its small and highly selective lineup and casual, low-key, red carpet/paparazzi-free vibe — not to mention the considerable turnout of Academy members that it attracts (which is sizable enough for the Academy itself to host a party for its members at the fest).

There is a widespread sense, among those with whom I spoke, that film festivals should be in the business of celebrating films, not punishing them. While Cannes will not allow into competition any film that has previously played somewhere else, and New York insists upon a world premiere for its opening night, those mandates have very limited implications; Cannes accepts only a few Hollywood films each year, and New York's requirement impacts only one. But Toronto's demands affect a much-larger number of films.

One practical implication of Toronto's new policy is that it makes it much more expensive for a distributor to send a film to both fests. Smaller distributors have long opted to put their artier films, as well as foreign films and docs, on "the Telluride-Toronto circuit" because both generate advance buzz that films of that sort need. But, under the new policy, a film that plays at Telluride might have to wait as many as 16 days before screening at Toronto -- that's presuming it plays on one of the first nights in Telluride and one of the last in Toronto.

While big distributors like Warner Bros., which brought Gravity and Prisoners to both fests last year, can afford the considerable expense associated with such a wait — feeding and housing the actors, directors and producers who travel with their films, as well as their significant others and their handlers — doing so becomes cost-prohibitive for some independent distributors. If not for that concern, independents insist that they would have no problem being assigned a later Toronto screening date; in fact, their films would be more likely to be win attention in Toronto if not scheduled opposite a cluster of high-profile titles from the majors early in the fest.

Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, recently gave an interview to the Toronto Star newspaper in which he was highly critical of Toronto's new policy -- which he called "imperialistic" — and suggested an alternative solution: Toronto could make available its four premier theatrical venues — the Ryerson, Elgin and Princess of Wales theaters and Roy Thomson Hall -- only to true North American or world premieres, and screen other films at its other venues, such as the Bell Lightbox. That seems like it should be punishment enough for a distributor daring to show a film somewhere prior to Toronto, but it apparently was not.

Who, other than Bailey and the rest of Toronto's top brass, was actually affronted by the dynamic that has existed for years between Telluride and Toronto? (Not moviegoing Torontonians, who turn out in droves for films that previously played in Telluride -- and award many of them their audience award.) And how does Toronto's new policy serve film and filmmakers, which is supposedly a — perhaps the — primary objective of film festivals? The widespread feeling among the distributors and filmmakers with whom I spoke seems to be that Toronto's organizers have allowed their pride and egos to influence their policymaking, hurting films, filmmakers and their own event in the process.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg