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TIFF, the unofficial start of prestige-movie season, explained

The Toronto International Film Festival is about a lot more than Oscars (but it’s also about Oscars).

2015 Toronto International Film Festival - 'Room' Premiere
Jacob Tremblay, Brie Larson, and Joan Allen attend the premiere of Room at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Beginning today, 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. That was certainly the case with last year’s festival, which bestowed awards on eventual Oscar winners Spotlight and Room, and screened several other films that became major awards season contenders, like Brooklyn, The Danish Girl, and Trumbo.

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 this year’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 Oscars 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

Cannes

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

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

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.

But 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, or San Francisco. There are also increasingly popular specialty events like genre-themed Fantastic Fest in Austin or the 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 places to be seen, to help build their reputation and their audience.

That’s often the only way that 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 in 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, he or 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

Birdman

Fox Searchlight

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

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. (In 2015, TIFF 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.

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

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

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.

Check back over the next 10 days for daily dispatches from this year’s TIFF.

Read more about 2015’s TIFF offerings in the original version of this story.

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