TIFF on the world stage
Comparing Toronto's film festival with other global heavyweights
By Jon Hembrey, CBC News
Posted: Aug 23, 2011 12:59 PM ET
Last Updated: Aug 13, 2012 12:50 PM ET
Although the Toronto International Film Festival has come a long way over the years, it hasn't really surpassed the glitz and glamour of the Cannes Film Festival, cinema experts say.
But that's not really the point.
Some of the top festivals in the world are as varied as the picturesque locations they are set in.
From the Italian island of the Lido in the Adriatic Sea for the Venice Film Festival to the rugged beauty of mountainous Park City, Utah and the Sundance Film Festival, it's like comparing one superbly polished apple to another bright, juicy orange.
Among all these star-studded international film fetes, Toronto is a considerable heavyweight.
"It's major," said Kay Armatage, professor at the cinema studies institute at the University of Toronto. "It's one of the top three or four depending on how you count them."
Others have placed TIFF just behind Cannes.
"We are second," said Norm Wilner, vice-president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, "and that should be more than enough."
"Cannes is still considered the premiere venue for artistic and global evaluation and Toronto has now matured into its own monster, its own thing," said Wilner, who is also senior film writer with NOW Magazine in Toronto.
Festivals big and small
It becomes quite difficult to compare festivals in any meaningful way because there are so many factors to consider, from attendance numbers to the type and quantity of films screened.
TIFF, for instance, usually shows about 300 films spanning a number of genres and sold 500,000 tickets in 2009, the last year for which information is available. About 1,100 accredited members of the media cover the 11-day event.
'We are in the top tier with Cannes.'—Piers Handling, CEO of TIFF
Cannes, on the other hand, is a closed festival and unlike TIFF does not sell tickets. The public can only attend the open-air Cinéma de la Plage screenings.
About 80 films are shown in the official selection to 27,000 accredited professionals, including directors, producers and distributors. That number also includes 4,600 journalists.
A lucky few non-industry types do get invitations, although the Cannes website warns they are "personal and non-transferable and legal action may be taken against persons transferring tickets even when no monetary exchange is involved."
To further muddy the waters, another 900 films are shown at the Marché du Film, a cinema market that is the business counterpart of Cannes and runs in tandem with the prestigious festival.
The Berlin International Film Festival, which is often mentioned alongside TIFF as one of the biggest in terms of sheer size, sold 300,000 tickets and screened 385 films in 2011.
The largest in terms of audience seems to be the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which draws 600,000 people, according to its website.
There are smaller festivals like the Sundance Film Festival, which focuses on American independent films, or the tiny Telluride Film Festival, which keeps its program of 35 features and shorts a secret but manages to snatch many of the prestigious premieres.
There are also very small — and sometimes sparsely attended — niche festivals that focus on specific themes, including environmental, gay or cultural-specific issues.
TIFF a bellwether for Oscars
For Piers Handling, director and CEO of TIFF, it's obvious where Toronto stands.
"We are in the top tier along with Cannes," he said in an email interview with CBC News.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of TIFF, though, is that it is a non-competitive event, he said.
Although Toronto does hand out some awards, mostly for Canadian films, it does not have the Cannes Palme d'or or the Golden Lion from Venice, honours bestowed by much-talked about juries made of cenophiles of global repute.Dev Patel, left, stars as quiz-show guest Jamal, who matches wits with the show's devious host (Anil Kapoor) in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. The film won the People's Choice award at TIFF in 2008. ((Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight))
However, TIFF is known for its People's Choice Award, which is often touted as predictor of Academy Awards. The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire notably went on to win several awards, including Best Picture, after getting the nod from Toronto filmgoers.
"We're most famous for our eager, avid, passionate, discerning audience who by the hundreds of thousands fill our cinemas year after year," Handling said. "We also combine public, media and the film industry in a unique way."
Michael Moore's first film Roger and Me took the People's Choice Award in 1989, which helped in part to launch the career of the now-famous documentarian.
"[TIFF] is now the bellwether, as far as festival go, for award fodder," said Charlie Keil from the University of Toronto's cinema studies institute.
That might have something to do with the timing of TIFF.
Filmmakers do not want their films out too early for fear they will be forgotten by year's end, but they also want enough time to generate buzz.
So with TIFF taking place in September, it is ideally placed for Oscar nods, Keil said.
Festival scene a 'big picture'
Armatage said the international festival film scene is a complicated one and there is a continuous ebb and flow of fortunes.
"It's a big picture," she said, adding a number of factors — from economics and politics to programmers and film selection — can influence standings.
For Keil, there is little in the way of comparison to be made among the top tier of festivals
"The point is that with all these festivals, no one would question their prominence," he said. "No one is saying behind their hand, 'Oh, these festivals are on their last legs.' "
Instead, they're all basically doing what they're supposed to be doing, which is introducing and promoting films.
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