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TIFF and the international film festival circuit, explained

Many big Oscar contenders will play at the Toronto festival — but a whole bunch of other films will, too

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Beginning Thursday, September 10, the global movie industry will effectively relocate to Canada for 10 days, as part of an annual ritual that just might anoint the year's biggest Oscar contenders.

Consider Demolition, a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a man recovering from the death of his wife. The movie's gala screening opens the 40th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF has been very good to Gyllenhaal and Demolition director Jean-Marc Vallée. Last year, the festival hosted the world premiere of the grimy crime picture Nightcrawler, which propelled Gyllenhaal into the conversation for year-end awards. Vallée, meanwhile, has landed two consecutive films in the Oscar race — 2013’s Best Picture nominee (and Best Actor winner) Dallas Buyers Club and 2014’s Best Actress nominee Wild — after rapturous receptions in Toronto.

But don’t get the idea that TIFF is all about Oscars. Taking into account both feature films and shorts, nearly 400 movies will screen at 2015’s festival, and they run the gamut from trashy B-horror to radical avant-garde experiments. The vast majority of what plays in Toronto each September is bound for art-house theaters, cult DVD labels, or a longer trip around the festival circuit — not to the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards.

At the same time, the Oscar race is a big part of TIFF's appeal. Over the past two decades, strong showings in Toronto have helped boost the awards prospects of American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Crash, and more. None of these movies were pegged as potential Oscar winners before TIFF. The grassroots enthusiasm of audiences and critics in Toronto changed their fortunes. All four movies listed above went on to win Best Picture.

What does this mean for the average moviegoer? Well, TIFF marks the time of year when summer blockbuster season ends and fall prestige season begins, which means the festival is where many of the movies that are going to be talked about the most in October, November, and December get their first real exposure. Paying attention to what’s happening at TIFF is a good way to know what to look forward to for the rest of the year — and even into next year, since many of the best films in Toronto won’t be released until then.

But TIFF is just one part of the year-round film festival circuit, a major part of the international movie business. Understanding that circuit can help you pinpoint some of the best movies in the world weeks or even months before they arrive in the US.

The festival circuit is a handful of major festivals, then a multitude of regional ones


The Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's seven major film festivals.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

No matter where you live in the world, there’s likely some kind of annual film festival held nearby (even if "nearby" is a few hundred miles away). These "regional fests" often feature local work, or sometimes have a special focus — like, for instance, the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France, or the action/science fiction/horror-centered Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

No matter their unique wrinkles, regional fests devote a large chunk of their programming to films that originally played at one (or more) of a small handful of major international festivals. It's these larger festivals that take up the bulk of the movie world's attention.

Film buffs differ some on which fests count as "major," but in general, the seven biggies are: Sundance, a showcase for independent film held every January in Park City, Utah; the Berlin International Film Festival in February; the prestigious Cannes festival held in the French city in May; late August’s Venice festival; September’s Telluride, Colorado, and Toronto fests; and then the New York Film Festival in late September or early October.

Strong cases could be made for including Austin's SXSW; New York's Tribeca; Locarno, Switzerland's festival; or Busan, South Korea's — not to mention venerable big-city fests in Melbourne, London, Seattle, and San Francisco. There are also increasingly popular specialty events like the genre-themed Fantastic Fest in Austin, or documentary-centric True/False in Columbia, Missouri.

But the majority of the foreign-language, indie, and weird genre pictures that fill out festival lineups around the world made their initial debuts at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto, or New York. They form the center of the festival circuit.

Festivals give smaller art films a chance to be seen — and maybe even sold

Awards Night Ceremony - 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Whiplash took the 2014 Sundance Film Festival by storm. It would eventually end up at the Oscars.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

The smaller regional festivals — and even some of the bigger city fests — can give quirky art films a place to be seen, to help build their reputation and their audience.

That’s often the only way residents of some parts of the world get a chance to see excellent but less buzzed-about independent and foreign films on a big screen, with a sizable audience. With the decline in actual art-house cinemas, a long festival circuit run is often the best that some very good movies can hope for, before they reach their inevitable home on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, and cable.

A lot of the major festivals are also, essentially, marketplaces. Producers sell their wares to distributors around the world, and to video on-demand platforms like Netflix. A good festival run means increased attention, and increased attention means a higher likelihood of landing a good deal for further commercial distribution.

This time of year, though, most of the headlines coming out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto have a lot to do with how they’re helping set the agenda for the Academy Awards race. It’s not that other festivals don’t debut Oscar winners. (In 2014, Boyhood and Whiplash got their starts at Sundance.) But since the studios tend to stack their awards contenders into November and December, they like to use the fall festivals to generate early buzz.

Toronto packs more into its 10 days than most festivals

TIFF Awards Brunch - 2014 Toronto International Film Festival

Actor Zaib Shaikh speaks onstage during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival Awards brunch. While awards are hugely important at some festivals, they're a bit of an afterthought at TIFF.

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Often called both "the people’s festival" and "the festival of festivals," Toronto is notable for how much variety and quality it packs into 10 days. An array of programs — including a slate of documentaries, a set of films for kids, and the hugely popular "Midnight Madness" collection of future cult movies — is split between world premieres and a generous sampling of the best from the other major festivals.

TIFF attendees could easily fill their schedules with nothing but titles that have already played at Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes, or they could spend the whole week chasing awards bait, trying to see tomorrow’s Oscar nominees today. A big reason for the Toronto festival’s importance in the cinephile calendar is that even if it were the only fest a film buff attended each year, she would walk away from it with a good sense of cinema’s best right now.

Film festival rivalries mostly boil down to which fests get which premieres


TIFF screwed itself out of a showing of Birdman in 2014, thanks to a rivalry with the Telluride festival.

Fox Searchlight

Because the fall launch can be so important to awards campaigns, the producers, studios, and publicists often strategize about where to premiere a film, and which stars they want to fly in to walk a festival's red carpet and meet with the press. But the needs of the showbiz folks don’t always correspond with the traditions and preferences of the festivals — which can create some awkwardness.

New York, for example, demands that its opening-night film be a world premiere, and since that fest starts the latest in the fall, its programmers can effectively keep a movie from being shown by any of its competitors. Telluride, meanwhile, tries to keep its slate secret until right before opening day, which in the past has meant that after Toronto announces its films with great fanfare, it gets "scooped" when Telluride shows some of the same titles a few days earlier.

None of this really affects moviegoers, since the four major fall festivals still show a lot of the same films, and people following the action from home don’t care much about which fest is responsible for generating the first reviews of a much-anticipated new project.

It is possible, though, that TIFF’s attempt to assert more control over the process cost that festival’s attendees an early look at some significant fall releases in past years. In 2013, the Toronto administrators were reportedly miffed when critics raved about the Telluride screenings of 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, which happened just days before TIFF had its chance to show them.

In 2014, the festival reserved its more highly attended opening weekend slots for non-Telluride titles, with the ultimate effect being that some movies — like future Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman — played Venice, Telluride, and New York, but not Toronto. (This year, TIFF has more or less abandoned its Telluride-busting policy.)

By the way, all of this jostling for position doesn’t mean the four biggest fall festivals always end up showing the year’s best. Some studios opt to keep a few Oscar contenders away from the festival circuit entirely, then launch them shortly after Thanksgiving via special critics’ screenings, before they debut in late December. Some of 2015’s most highly anticipated films — like Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, David O. Russell’s Joy, and Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant — won’t be seen for months.

TIFF is also accessible to film fans in a way other festivals aren't

The City Of Toronto Prepares For The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival

It's possible even now to get tickets to TIFF 2015.

Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

Cannes badges are hard to get. Sundance sells tickets to the general public, but cheap lodging in a ski resort in January is difficult to secure.

Toronto, on the other hand, has plenty of available hotel rooms, good public transportation, and lots of affordable food options. Of the major festivals, it's by far the easiest for the average film fan to attend. (And because the festival takes place in September, the weather’s ideal for walkers.)

More importantly, even at this late date, it’s not impossible to get tickets. Some smaller films aren’t sold out, and for the bigger-name movies, if fans are willing to line up an hour or so before the screening in a "rush line," there’s a good chance they’ll be able to fill one of the handful of unused seats (or might see someone walk by with an extra ticket to sell).

Ideally, TIFF-goers will want to buy ticket packages and book travel months in advance, but by no means is the festival only meant for planners — or even solely for film critics. Hustle on up to Toronto right now. With a little ingenuity and persistence, you could catch many of the fall's major releases in a matter of days.

Even if you can't attend, Toronto is a good way to plan your future moviegoing

Many of the movies playing in Toronto will be out in theaters near you sooner than you might think. (All films in bold will play the festival and likely attract considerable press attention. For up-to-date reports, consider industry trade publications like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, or smaller publications like Indiewire.)

The Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass (about Boston mobster Whitey Bulger) plays TIFF on opening weekend, then opens wide September 19. Several fall art-house releases — like Sicario, Stonewall, Taxi, Room, The Martian, and Truth — are essentially treating Toronto as a mass preview screening, taking advantage of the large assemblage of critics and cinephiles to get the word out.

And this year, Beasts of No Nation — an African war film from True Detective season one director Cary Fukunaga — will be available on Netflix a month after it’s in Toronto, the streaming service's first major scripted film release.

But every year at TIFF, there are excellent films that draw a lot of buzz and then don’t come out for months, such as the icy sci-fi tale Under the Skin in 2013, and the dark relationship drama The Duke of Burgundy in 2014. Both films waited until the next calendar year to come out in the US.

And again, a lot of these movies are either starting or continuing what will become a long stretch of playing one festival after another — including perhaps an event near you. The best way to treat "the word out of Toronto" is both as a way to prioritize your fall/winter moviegoing, and as a checklist for things to see at your favorite regional fest.

The really exciting film at any festival is the one we don't know about yet

87th Annual Academy Awards - Backstage And Audience

Julianne Moore's unlikely journey to the Oscar for Best Actress began in Toronto.

Christopher Polk/Getty Images

It’s highly likely that at least one big Oscar-winner will emerge from TIFF, even if it’s not next year’s Best Picture winner. And there are plenty of movies awards experts have their eyes on.

Frequently, actors and actresses use Toronto as stepping stone to the Academy Awards stage, as Eddie Redmayne did with The Theory of Everything last year, and Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto with Dallas Buyers Club the year before that. This year, it’s probably wise to keep an eye on Tom Hardy in a dual role as the killer Kray twins in Legend, Tom Hiddleston as country music icon Hank Williams in I Saw The Light, and Bryan Cranston as a famed blacklisted screenwriter in Trumbo.

But even better are the complete surprises. In 2014, Julianne Moore's out-of-nowhere performance as an Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice turned that movie into a TIFF must-see. The previously obscure film was rushed into a late December opening, so that Moore could compete for the Best Actress Oscar — which she eventually won. And Moore is back in 2015 as a dying lesbian fighting for her partner's rights in Freeheld.

But also know that when it comes to film festivals, it’s highly likely that the standout film or awards-worthy performance is something that as of right now we know nothing about. More than anything, this is why festivals like TIFF matter: They offer the opportunity for real discoveries — even for movie buffs who are only following the clamor from afar.

Above all else, TIFF features something for everyone — even TV fans

As always, 2015's program is heavy on holdovers from Sundance (such as the stirring horse-racing documentary Dark Horse, the sweet period romance Brooklyn, and the absolutely terrifying horror film The Witch) and Cannes (including the Palme D’or–winning Dheepan, the surreal dark comedy The Lobster, and the Holocaust thriller Son of Saul, although not, curiously, Todd Haynes’s acclaimed lesbian love story Carol, which is in Telluride and New York).

From the pool of films flowing among the various fall fests, the 2015 edition of TIFF features a healthy dollop of star-laden mainstream items that could turn out to be Oscar-bound or could be duds. These include: director David Gordon Green’s George Clooney–produced political satire Our Brand Is Crisis, starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton; Spotlight, a newsroom drama with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams playing Boston journalists chasing the story of a Catholic church sexual abuse scandal; and Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in director Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl.

For the more art-film-inclined, there’s a lot of excitement this year about: 45 Years, the latest from filmmaker Andrew Haigh, the man behind the superb British indie Weekend and the HBO series Looking; Anomalisa, a stop-motion-animated feature written and co-directed by Being John Malkovich/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman; and new films by art-house favorites Terence Davies (adapting Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Scottish novel Sunset Song), Pablo Larraín (following up 2012’s magnificent No with The Club, about disgraced priests who share a house on the Chilean coast), and Ben Wheatley (adapting J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise).

Expect also to hear a lot in the coming week about several documentaries premiering in Toronto. Michael Moore is back with his latest political essay film, Where to Invade Next. Oscar winner Barbara Kopple spent a year following a cancer-stricken retro R&B hero for Miss Sharon Jones!. Performance artist Laurie Anderson ponders the death of her husband, Lou Reed, in Heart of a Dog. And the beloved cinema studies text Hitchcock/Truffaut has been adapted into a film by critic Kent Jones.

This year also sees the debut of a new TIFF program devoted to television, which will feature episodes of NBC’s upcoming Heroes Reborn and the French supernatural mystery series The Returned.

If any of the above appeals, get to Toronto immediately. There's still time.

Check back later this month for Noel's picks of the festival.

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