This was not the 40th edition of the “Festival of Festivals” that Toronto was hoping for.
The 2015 Toronto International Festival began with legal issues forcing the Aretha Franklin concert documentary “Amazing Grace” to cancel its opening night slot and has pretty much ended with the withdraw of the Amber Heard drama “London Fields” after director Matthew Cullen took the film”s producers to court claiming (among other things) that they re-edited the film without his input. Considering how weak the world premieres were overall this year it was par the course for a festival”s whose opening weekend was colder and rainier than in recent memory.
Granted, There were certainly a lot of good movies that screened at the fest this year, but almost every single one of them debuted somewhere else. That”s not good for an event that considers itself one of the premier film festivals in the world. With Venice and Telluride flexing their muscles as auteur and awards season hotspots (often without even trying), Toronto has seen the quality of debut films slide in recent years.
In 2014 TIFF was lucky enough to host the first screenings of “The Theory of Everything,” “Still Alice,” “St. Vincent,” “Beyond the Lights,” “Cake,” “While We”re Young” and “Top Five,” among others. This year was not as kind with only “The Martian,” “Truth,” “Trumbo,” “Demolition,” “Hardcore” and “The Meddler” generating positive or lukewarm notices (“Martian” is the only true winner among new debuts at Toronto this year). As the festival dragged on the question almost everyone seemed to be asking is how does the TIFF brain trust reverse this slide?
Honestly, there is nothing wrong with Toronto turning into a “best of” festival (it”s original name, The Festival of Festivals, always insinuated that), but it”s not how the institution currently sells itself to filmmakers, corporate sponsors or the nation of Canada itself. When you talk to everyday moviegoers at the festival they are almost always immensely proud of the notoriety the festival has achieved. They believe they talking point that Toronto launches Best Picture winners (even if the last winner to actually debut in Toronto was “Crash” in 2004) and that there is no festival more star-studded (it certainly helps when you program over 300 films).
TIFF also has a reputation as filmmaker friendly (although I”d like to learn of one major festival that isn”t) and until this year had abstained from any sort of formal competition which could avoid unnecessary drama. The festival has given away a People”s Choice Award since 1978, but it”s become something of a marketing exercise for studios and you never hear a director gushing with pride after winning it (at least outside of a formal press release). This year the fest added Platform, a competition slate, but very few of those films created any buzz (we”ll touch on one of them, “High-Rise” later on). It”s a start, but TIFF may need to do more than just dip its toe in the competition waters to remain relevant long term.
Simply put, the seasonal competition from Venice, Telluride and New York have severely damaged TIFF”s premiere slate. Venice excites auteurs and producers over the prospect of winning the Golden Lion and is a significant publicity opportunity for Hollywood movie studios in Europe. Telluride legitimately has more Academy members, industry and guild members in attendance providing the most cost effective petri dish for the always-lucrative awards season. For established American filmmakers especially, New York can provide a unique creative validation from the city”s cultural elite.
Toronto, on the other hand, has become an extension of LA”s red carpet machine serving as a mini-junket for the global media (and an expense some studios are increasingly weary of). There are years when Toronto”s film market flexes its muscle, but, so far, 2015 has been the weakest in recent memory with many titles taking the best deal they could get before the festival began (perhaps too early). Listen, people started noticing all of this was an issue in 2013. It became a media story last year and in 2015 it”s simply the status quo.