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Calculating the Toronto effect

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 25, 2011

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Have you seen the best picture winner?

No one’s gauche enough to actually ask such a question, but it hangs behind the lips of many at the Toronto International Film Festival. It gives urgency to the standard greetings in the waiting lines and theater lobbies: What have you seen? What have you liked? And it reflects the established omnipotence of this self-styled fall “festival of festivals’’ on the shores of Lake Ontario. Says film producer Gareth Unwin, “Everyone loves the bragging rights - to be able to say, hey, back in Toronto I picked the winner.’’

Unwin should know. Last year, his movie “The King’s Speech’’ screened in Toronto and was immediately anointed the bright, shining hope of the 2010-11 Oscar race; 5 1/2 months later it won the Academy Award for best picture. The film’s journey from TIFF to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood was a repeat of the unexpected ascension of “Slumdog Millionaire’’ in 2008-09. Between those two, “The Hurt Locker’’ won best picture in 2010 - a film that had debuted at Toronto almost a year and a half before it took the gold.

What is it about this festival that so dominates the global film industry’s serious season? Why does success in Toronto often result in statuettes? And is this good for the movie business or does it highlight too few films at the expense of too many? At this year’s TIFF, which ended last Sunday, the media hoopla focused primarily on high-profile star vehicles such as “The Descendants’’ (starring George Clooney), “The Ides of March’’ (starring and directed by Clooney), and “A Dangerous Method’’ (Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as Freud and Jung, with Keira Knightley as their patient). Yet it was an unheralded musical comedy-drama from Lebanon, “Where Do We Go Now?’’ that flew in under the radar to take the Cadillac People’s Choice Award, the audience trophy that’s Toronto’s top prize.

The success of Nadine Labaki’s film - already a hit at Cannes in May and Lebanon’s official entry for the best foreign language Oscar - came as a shock to many. All the time that “Where Do We Go Now?’’ had been charming Toronto audiences, the cultural conversation online and in print had largely been limited to more mainstream titles and/or movies in English. That’s how TIFF is used now by the US film industry and the global media-blogosphere that covers it: as the opening gong to a five-month march of glamorized seriousness of purpose.

It wasn’t always this way. Some Toronto veterans, like Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, peg the change to the 2004 decision by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences to move the Oscar ceremonies up a month, from late March to late February. Its purpose was to cut short the full-court-press awards campaigns typified by Miramax and Harvey Weinstein. The unintended effect was to entrench Toronto as a seasonal starting gate. “[Before], when you had a movie that you were going to put into Oscar contention, you could put it out in November and you’d have three months of box office that could pay for your Oscar campaign,’’ says Bernard. “Toronto was always a tremendous place to launch a movie because of the amount of press that comes here. And when the Academy changed the date, everyone said, OK, we’ll start here.’’

The festival’s role as red-carpet kingmaker goes further back, though, to 1999 and “American Beauty.’’ Cameron Bailey, TIFF co-director and a 21-year veteran of the festival, says “that was a film that was unheralded. People didn’t really know what to do with it, but the Toronto audience just embraced it and that led to a long campaign toward the Academy Awards.’’ Not every year is so cut and dried, but because this festival is the first major gathering of the industry tribes after the long, hot box-office summer, it serves as a bellwether, like it or not.

TIFF does have influential competition. The Venice Film Festival, which just celebrated its 68th edition, precedes Toronto by a few weeks, and the Telluride Film Festival takes place in Colorado between the two. But Venice tends to favor more sophisticated cinema that may not factor into the commercial awards race, and Telluride, a beloved boutique festival that schedules 30-odd titles to TIFF’s nearly 300, has come to be an integral part of the Hollywood studios’ one-two PR punch. “Telluride is a beautifully curated festival,’’ says Anne Thompson, an industry journalist who writes a widely followed blog for indiewire.com. “What they have is audiences from all over the country who are classic art-house audiences. It gives you a shot at recognizing where something is going over.’’ Both “Slumdog Millionaire’’ and “The King’s Speech’’ employed Telluride as a staging area to whet the appetite of the subsequent Toronto hordes, a strategy that was used this year for such Oscar hopefuls as “The Descendants,’’ “A Dangerous Method,’’ and “Albert Nobbs,’’ the latter a period piece with Glenn Close in butler drag.

What Toronto brings to the party is people - lots of them, both in the press and in the seats. Sony Classics’ Bernard has been coming to TIFF since 1979 and sees it as an important tool in his stated mission to “integrate a movie into the culture so people make it part of their own DNA.’’ “We’re able to connect to newspapers and media and blogs all over the country that we would never have access to [in one place],’’ Bernard says. “And with the Internet, everyone’s seeing the festival live, so all the blogs connect people more to the films. When they have more information about the films, they start to look for them. It’s a way to create awareness that just didn’t exist before.’’

Equally as crucial as press coverage is Toronto’s ace in the hole: Toronto moviegoers. Unlike Cannes, TIFF is a public festival, and that public can make or break a movie’s reputation. Says Bernard, “This is probably the best audience at any festival in the world for getting every nuance of a film. I think Toronto has a cross-section of all the smart US audiences, and they’re really into movies here.’’ When that public chooses to embrace a film, it can be a heady experience. Producer Unwin remembers how “The King’s Speech’’ built momentum at Telluride and then came to Toronto, where the floodgates of public acclaim seemed to burst open. “One of the things that the cast and the producers remember was the standing ovation we were given at the end of the film,’’ Unwin says. “To be applauded and acknowledged in that way by an auditorium of nearly two and a half thousand people was really mind-blowing.’’

The festival and the city itself actively curry favor with those people, locals and visitors alike. TIFF has become a civic bonanza that has buffed Toronto’s international cultural reputation and poured money into the pockets of many businesses there. No wonder the festival is supported with private and public money, or that it now takes place in and near the Bell TIFF Lightbox, a dazzling glass theater complex near the lakefront. At its glitziest, the festival has become Canada’s premiere red-carpet extravaganza, with celebrities and the global press parading annually before dazzled Torontonians.

It always comes down to the films, though, and this year the message out of Toronto was unclear. Some big seasonal contenders stayed away - the Meryl Streep Margaret Thatcher biopic, “The Iron Lady,’’ Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,’’ with Leonardo DiCaprio as the young Hoover, Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse’’ - and the reception for such movies as “Dangerous Method,’’ “Albert Nobbs,’’ and “The Ides of March’’ was mixed. “Shame,’’ with Fassbender as a sex addict in Manhattan, was widely admired but faces an uphill commercial battle (it will almost certainly be rated NC-17). “The Descendants’’ and “The Artist’’ (a black-and-white silent charmer that wowed them in Cannes) seemed to be the most broadly loved films to come out of the festival, but Thompson sees as much risk involved as reward. “To be considered the front-runner is often a liability, because the expectations are so high. What happens now is that ‘Artist’ and ‘Descendants’ are taking over as the front-runners, and now we have this other batch of late-in-the-year movies that haven’t been seen yet, like ‘J. Edgar.’ ’’

In other words, unless you hit a home run at Toronto, as “King’s Speech’’ and “Slumdog’’ did, a best picture win is never a sure bet. Where TIFF does alter the stakes is in the acting categories and foreign language races. Says Thompson, “A little movie like ‘50/50’ can suddenly be pushed to the front of a line that no one thought it was even on. I mean, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in the race for best actor now. It’s a possibility at least; it’s part of the conversation.’’

And the public’s choice of Lebanon’s “Where Do We Go Now?’’ - a playfully sexy but fundamentally serious drama about sectarian tensions in the Middle East - is a welcome reminder that TIFF and the movies are, in the end, about more than the Oscar podium five months and so many miles away.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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