Which movies are you going to be talking about this fall? Over the past few years, studios hoping to make their films must-see events among discerning audiences have depended on a rare bit of fairy dust: First, they held a premiere for the elite film industry and taste-making crowd at the Telluride Film Festival in the mountains of Colorado, then they moved on to a red-carpet splash and media frenzy at the more populist-oriented Toronto International Film Festival.
Five of the past seven movies to win the best-picture Oscar – 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire – performed the same smart two-step. "Has it made a difference for films to play both Telluride and Toronto? Absolutely. What more could you ask for?" noted Ted Hope, a veteran independent producer (The Savages, 21 Grams) who has brought films to both festivals.
As those films ascended, Telluride and TIFF took on reputations as twin kingmakers. But this year, TIFF is taking a beating after the festival imposed a controversial new policy excluding Telluride-launched films from playing during its coveted first weekend. Like Sundance, Telluride is a hothouse atmosphere where most films play well, helping to set the tone that audiences and critics later amplify in Toronto. TIFF's move has cast a shadow over the fall festival season, prompting anxiety among distributors who feel they need as much critical attention for their films as they can get, while offering a rare glimpse at the sharp elbows and gritted teeth behind the red carpet smiles.
In his Telluride wrap-up, the veteran film critic Todd McCarthy said TIFF looked "like a bully," a Goliath beating up on David. And if the dire warnings of some in the industry are correct, it could even damage the prospects of promising Canadian films.
The new policy comes as independent filmmakers and producers are scrambling to find new ways to break through to audiences overwhelmed by a glut of movies and ways of watching them. The technological and economic changes, say those in the industry, have prompted many festivals to re-examine their mandates, to ensure they stay relevant within the evolving ecosystem.
Jason Reitman has taken three of his past four films to both Telluride and TIFF: Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009) and Labor Day (2013). But in the wake of the new policy, Reitman is taking his hotly anticipated new drama Men, Women & Children to Toronto for its world premiere, which will take place this Saturday at 6 p.m.
Reitman's choice was never in much doubt. His professional coming-out, the 2005 satire Thank You for Smoking, debuted at TIFF, and his family has strong ties to the fest, whose 39th edition opens Thursday night. Many filmmakers didn't need to make a choice: 15 out of the 25 films in Telluride's main program last weekend will still play in Toronto.
But other high-profile fall films are sitting out TIFF, including Birdman, the new Michael Keaton drama directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who previously brought Babel and Biutiful to Toronto. After emerging from the Venice Film Festival late last week an Oscar front-runner, it got another bump from Telluride over the weekend. But now it won't be seen in North America again until it closes the New York Film Festival next month, leading directly to its theatrical release. While that festival remains a boutique event, similar in size to Telluride, it has lately had its share of Oscar bait, including world premieres last year of Captain Phillips and Her.
This year, the NYFF will host the world premiere of Inherent Vice, though that film's director Paul Thomas Anderson has previously brought many movies to TIFF, including The Master, Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love.
TIFF maintains its new policy was necessary to bring what it calls "clarity" around the premiere status of the films in its program (as well as the subsequent bragging rights when those films go on to a bountiful awards season). It also hopes that, by stretching out the TIFF premieres of the buzziest films, viewers and the media will pay more attention over the final days of the festival.
"There had been a very nice gentleman's agreement for many, many years, and with increasing attention on all festivals because of awards season, I just think it was a little confusing to our public and to the media and to the industry as a whole, in terms of where the films were playing for the first time," said Piers Handling, TIFF's director and CEO.
While local audiences tend to shrug off whether a film has played earlier in another country, Handling said some journalists complained about TIFF's claims of hosting certain world premieres when some of those films had already played Telluride.
There was a growing fear that stars might decide to skip TIFF after their stop in the Rockies. "Stars are contractually bound to go to their premieres, so of course there's all kinds of byproducts for the public, in terms of seeing those stars here on the red carpet – doing Q&As in Toronto," said Handling. "The stars have to follow their world premieres, and the media follow the stars – and they also follow the world premieres, to be able to review them. I think the status of your event obviously increases as a result."
But with TIFF moving so aggressively against Telluride, there's the chance that small films – including especially fragile Canadian pictures – could suffer collateral damage.
"Buzz does not just happen – it's not like Cinderella, where some film shows up and, bang, it becomes this buzz event," explained Hussain Amarshi, the president and founder of the Canadian independent distributor Mongrel Media, which has 19 films at this year's festival including the Canadian comedy Preggoland as well as the awards hopefuls Foxcatcher and Leviathan, which both premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May.
"There's a life cycle to film, there's a whole process in which films emerge into the world, and you need all these stops that are critical in terms of building that awareness."
He noted that Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's award-winning 2012 documentary about her family, premiered at Venice, played Telluride, and then came home to TIFF. "It played Toronto on the opening Friday of the festival, and by Saturday or Sunday, they had closed a whole bunch of [foreign sales]. That is the perfect placement of a film." Amarshi said a similar approach had been successful for other Canadian films.
Still, many independent distributors are exploring new ways of getting their films in front of audiences. Over the weekend, the nine-minute short film The Sand Storm, starring the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, premiered simultaneously at Telluride and on the online movie service Fandor, of which Ted Hope is the CEO.
And while festivals are in flux, they remain powerful marketing tools for filmmakers and their movies. "It helps careers enormously," says Handling. "It puts them on the international map for media, in terms of international exposure – media but also the industry, with buyers, sellers, agents, foreign sales agents."
"I think they're all looking for that edge as it gets harder and harder for them to get significant theatrical distribution for their films."
Ted Hope agrees that, for the time being, the new TIFF policy will harm some films. "Distributors have lost a really powerful tool," he said. Still, he was cautiously hopeful. "I think all of the industry's focus on premieres and things along those lines is unfortunate, because I think you want to be able to celebrate the film first and foremost for what it is. I personally don't think the local audiences really care if a film opens elsewhere. It's really the global audience, through the Internet. But that's a real thing, too.
"It may well prove to be an experiment. I think that's something the entire industry has to learn how to do better, is to make some big choices, try some things out, and admit failure as often as we might proclaim success."