’12 Years a Slave’ wins the 2013 Toronto Film Festival People’s Choice Award

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” took another step on the long road to Oscar by winning the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award. The critically acclaimed adaptation of Solomon Northup’s harrowing true story received a standing ovation after both its Telluride Film Festival and Toronto premieres and was long seen as the frontrunner for this year’s honor. The win should immediately assist Fox Searchlight, who produced and is distributing the picture, in convincing moviegoers and Academy members who might be concerned with the brutality depicted in the film to actually go see it.

First runner-up was Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” (huge news for The Weinstein Company who may have found their actual real Oscar player this year) and second runner-up went to Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners.” The latter opens nationwide on Friday and should be a strong word-of-mouth hit for Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment.

The TIFF People’s Choice Award doesn’t have a long history as an Oscar bellwether, but it has been an indicator of potential Best Picture nominees over the previous five years. In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” took the prize and “Precious” followed a year later. “The King’s Speech” and “Silver Linings Playbook” won in 2010 and last year respectively. Other previous winners include “Amelie” (2001), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), “American Beauty” (1999), “Life is Beautiful” (1997), “Shine” (1996) and “Chariots of Fire” (1981). Toronto voters have been streaky in their populist approval, however. From 2002 to 2007 none of the winners figured seriously in the Best Picture race although “Tsotsi” (2005) did win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Like Warner Bros. with the other major potential nominee out of the early festival circuit, “Gravity,” Searchlight will need to manage expectations and hype over the coming months. “12 Years a Slave” will open in limited release on Oct. 18 before slowly expanding across the country.

Other TIFF festival winners this year included “When Jews Were Funny” for Best Canadian Feature Film, “Asphalt Watches” for Best Canadian First Feature Film, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” for the Midnight Madness honor and “The Square” for the documentary award.