Why TIFF had to get tough over film premieres
February 4, 2014
Regular citizens who see films rather than wrestle for them may well be puzzled by the Toronto International Film Festival’s new body-slam approach to movie premieres.
TIFF announced Tuesday that, beginning with this year’s Sept. 4-14 festival, the first four days – Thursday through Sunday – will be reserved for world and North America premieres. All other films, no matter how big or important, will screen over the following week on less-desirable days.
The bold move, announced by TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, was prompted by the increasing problem of rival fests, in particular Colorado’s Telluride, which snatched premiere status from Toronto for hot-ticket films like 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and Prisoners.
So what’s the big deal if Toronto festival goers get to see a new movie a few days after Telluride? A reasonable question, but it actually is a big deal.
Most festivals try to show not only the best in cinema, but also the newest. A major draw for festival attendees, sponsors and journalists is the catnip of being the first to see an anticipated new work, especially if it’s a film by a major director, and the viewing is a world premiere.
At Sundance last week, everybody was talking about and angling a ticket for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a film 12 years in the making about a child’s growth that was a surprise late addition to the fest.
The film was so new, it screened without complete credits and with a soundtrack of pop tunes that may change when Linklater finally locks his picture. But there was palpable audience electricity in the Eccles Theatre when the lights dimmed for the film and when they went up again for the Q&A session afterwards, with the director and cast present on stage.
There was a similar feeling in Cannes in 2011 when Terrence Malick’s long-awaited and much-discussed The Tree of Life premiered, en route to winning that year’s Palme d’Or.
Ten years earlier in the same building, the cops had to be called when fists started flying in the press lineup to see the first screening of Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), a new film by Jean-Luc Godard. The film had been booked into a theatre too small to meet demand, and cinéastes turned into pugilists.
That’s how seriously people take these things. The more important question people should be asking TIFF about its action this week is this one: What took you so long?
This question was actually posed, in so many words, by two prominent Los Angeles movie bloggers, David Poland of Movie City News and Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere.
“I love Telluride, but it’s about time that Toronto stopped being so damned Canadian about the issue,” Poland wrote.
Wells observed that Bailey had to finally take action because “he couldn’t just continue to be piranha-bitten to death.”
The poaching of premieres from TIFF’s turf has been going on for years, with rival fests in Venice and New York being a chronic irritant by snatching the odd coveted title. Filmmakers and studios have been complicit in this, by playing festivals against each other as they angled for the best possible time slots and exposure.
But Telluride suddenly became a thumb in the eye last year, by making a wholesale grab for Toronto-bound titles, including two that are now leading contenders for the Best Picture prize at the March 2 Academy Awards: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.
For the longest time, polite TIFF did its best to ignore Telluride’s habit of screening major movies just ahead of Toronto, billing them as “sneaks” rather than premieres, which is how Slumdog Millionaire played there in 2008.
Telluride used to be run like a private club for rich film lovers, industry players and a few trade journalists, who talked mainly amongst themselves. But the arrival of Twitter, the increasing presence of Oscar bloggers and efforts by Telluride officials to expand and promote their offerings created a global din that Toronto could no longer pretend not to hear.
The situation came to a head last year, when Telluride celebrated its 40th anniversary by scooping not only Toronto but also Venice, prompting Variety to publish a story headlined, “Can Telluride continue to steal Venice and Toronto’s thunder?”
That was like waving a red flag to Bailey and TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling, two gentlemen who normally hate to get into the ring when festival rivals start grappling.
Having made its ultimatum to preserve important premieres, TIFF now must figure out how to implement it. What will the festival do this year, for example, if it sells tickets to a world premiere screening and then gets scooped again by Telluride over the Labour Day weekend?
Bailey said such logistics “will be a series of conversations that we’ll have to have in the summer” but he feels the industry understands why TIFF did what it did and will play ball.
Right now, nobody is saying much. I sought reaction from two major studios, and also from the Telluride and Venice fests, and in all cases received either a polite “no comment” or complete silence.
The only thing I’ve seen out of the Telluride camp is an article by Variety film reporter Dave McNary saying the Colorado fest “won’t back down” from its long-standing practice of sneak premieres.
He quoted Julie Huntsinger, Telluride’s executive director: “The Telluride Film Festival has achieved its esteemed reputation with 40 years of dedication to a carefully curated program and a relaxed, no-hype environment where the filmmakers and the audience are placed first and foremost. We are committed to continue this effort in the same tradition we always have, with passion and integrity.”
That’s a diplomatic way of saying that TIFF must be ready to rumble.
But Toronto had to act now, or risk turning into an also-ran event like the Montreal World Film Festival, or WFF for short.
The WFF used to be a big deal, but it was long ago eclipsed by a rival down Highway 401 that began as the Festival of Festivals, happy to get films already premiered by other cinema showcases.
The Festival of Festivals grew to become the Toronto International Film Festival, where premieres matter and are worth being fought over.
Source: Toronto Star