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The Toronto Film Festival Is Out To Prove Its Worth To The International Film Industry

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For their mask-free, post-COVID return, the Cannes and Venice film festivals played to their strengths: doubling down on red carpet glamor and old-world elegance.

Cannes’ jaw-dropping display for Top Gun: Maverick — including a supersonic flyover courtesy of the French air force — reestablished the Gallic fest as the go-to location for the launch of big-ticket tentpoles.

Venice’s combination of classy backdrop — celebrities arriving by boat behind the Hotel Excelsior — and up-close fan connection — the teen crowds camped out on the Lido red carpet — made it the ideal stage to present this year’s most anticipated art house features, including Todd Field’s Tár starring Cate Blanchett, Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale with Brendan Fraser, both of which are already Oscar frontrunners, and more eclectic offerings, including Bones and AllLuca Guadagnino’s cannibal love story starring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell.

Downtown Toronto has, shall we say, somewhat less to offer in terms of Hollywood glitz or old-world class. The power of the Toronto International Film Festival, its secret weapon, is the audience: nearly half a million North American moviegoers, of all ages and demographics, packed into TIFF’s Roy Thomson Hall, Bell Lightbox and Princess of Wales Theatre. For studios and independents looking to see what will get ordinary film fans back to cinemas in this post-COVID environment, TIFF offers the world’s biggest test screening.

Sony Pictures Classics’ The Son premiered in Venice, but the real test of the box office potential of Florian Zeller’s family drama will be its TIFF debut on Sept. 12.

Even if an indie movie has an underwhelming premiere in Venice or Telluride, notes longtime Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, Toronto gives audiences a second look before awards season kicks off in earnest.

Hugh Jackman in ‘The Son’

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

“For me, if a movie doesn’t make it, isn’t well received in those places, there’s still a chance in Toronto for it to really be seen, and not redeemed, but understood for what it’s about and its full quality because the audience has read about it and [they] go and say, ‘It’s better than that,’” says Bernard.

TIFF can also act as an accelerator, stoking the hype around a hot Venice or Telluride title by showing it can thrive in the real world. Best picture Oscar winners Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) all premiered in Telluride, but really caught fire after their TIFF debuts. It was a similar story with La La Land (2016) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) — Venice titles that went from insider favs to mainstream success stories once Toronto audiences embraced them. In the rare case, a more mainstream title ignored by the more posh fests can use Toronto to break through — see: Green Book in 2018, which rode its TIFF premiere all the way to an upset Oscar win.

“Toronto is one of the most important festivals in seeing what Main Street, what people — not the industry — but what do people actually think about your movie,” says Ruzanna Kegeyan, head of acquisitions at Capstone. “With TIFF, we have our fingers on the pulse.”

Oscar Best Picture Winner Green Book premiered at TIFF

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The bulk of high-profile US titles heading to TIFF this year already have distribution in place, meaning the festival will be primarily used as a testing ground for how to position and market the films for their theatrical release. For international titles, however, TIFF has traditionally been a gateway to the North American market.

“Toronto is an absolute cornerstone festival now in the calendar for premiering films, both in securing that all-important North American or world sale. [and] as a launchpad to find international partners for upcoming projects and presales,” says George Hamilton, chief commercial officer at Protagonist Pictures.

After securing the kudos, and hopefully critical support, of a Venice or Telluride premiere, an international title can use a strong showing in Toronto to convince buyers of a film’s box office potential with a domestic audience.

As he gets set to lead an Italian delegation at TIFF, Roberto Stabile, head of international development at ANICA, the association of Italian producers, insists Italian movies do best when they launch in Venice and are then sold in Toronto in the same week.

“It’s the perfect collaboration between Italy and Canada. [In Venice] we do the red carpet, the parties and the paparazzi. A few days later, when the film is still hot, we arrive to do business in Toronto with a little less red carpet, but far more concrete business done,” Stabile said.

Capstone’s Kegeyan adds that TIFF is a better launchpad for potential crowd pleasers rather than critical darlings, films like Capstone’s Kate Beckinsale-Brian Cox thriller. Prisoner’s Daughterwhich the company is selling at TIFF.

“The film is premiering in Toronto, which is a better fit, just because of the subject matter. It’s a movie that’s a bit more mainstream, and we get the audience’s reactions,” Kegeyan says.

After showcasing films in both Toronto and Cannes, Radiant Films’ Mimi Steinbauer agrees the festivals offer different audience experiences, but emphasizes that each has its place.

“If you’re looking for a ‘traditional festival’ film, then Cannes is a wonderful venue and a good place to see it, and it’s that kind of red carpet,” says Steinbauer. “[Toronto] is not for an ‘award-winning Cannes film,’ but for one you can see with an audience and laugh and cry [together]. Cannes is [more] about prestige.”

Steinbauer adds that while Toronto audiences don’t like every movie they see, they — in typical Canadian fashion — are more polite and more generous with movies and less likely to punish a title that underwhelms.

“In Cannes, everyone goes in as a critic,” says Steinbauer. “In Toronto, you go in to be entertained.”



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