Choosing TIFF's opening night film

Though an American action thriller or a rock doc about U2 might seem like odd choices to open the Toronto International Film Festival, these recent selections are part of a deliberate effort to try new things at Canada's biggest film fete.

Process isn't influenced by geography anymore

The futuristic action thriller Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, opens the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. (TIFF)

Choosing a U2 documentary or a sci-fi inspired thriller starring Jospeh Gordon-Levitt might initially seem like odd choices to open the Toronto International Film Festival, but these recent selections are part of a deliberate effort to try new things at Canada's biggest film fete.

Specifically for opening night, "you want a film that actually commands the screen, is entertaining, that people really, really enjoy and [that] gets their heads into the rest of the festival," TIFF CEO Piers Handling said in July, after announcing U.S. director Rian Johnson's Looper as 2012's kick-off film.

"It is really fun to mix things up — most festivals do," Handling told CBC News last year.

"We feel that providing festival audiences with a diverse and interesting mix of opening-night film selections is a trend that seems to be working," he added.

Part of this new approach also involves leaving behind the unwritten rule of always choosing a Canadian film.

Looper, a genre film by a young director that mixes several different genres, sets "a very different" tone for 2012, Handling noted.

Meanwhile, 2011's pick — Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim's From the Sky Down, which examined the Irish rock band U2 and its seminal 1991 album Achtung Baby — was the first documentary ever to open TIFF.

"Since we are a truly international festival, we simply don't feel the pressure to select our opening night film based on geography," Handling said.

"If there is an appropriate Canadian film, we will select it," he said. "If not, we feel free to look everywhere."

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing the opening film, including where a film was made, who made it and whether international celebrities will be on hand for the gala, said Michael Zyrd, graduate program director for cinema and media studies at York University.

"And my sense is that the goal posts have shifted every year and, maybe to TIFF's credit, they try to have different films in that slot," he said.

Opening film shouldn't rock the boat 

Looking back over the last few years, there is no doubt TIFF programmers have tried to break with convention. In 2009, the British-made drama Creation, about the life of Charles Darwin, launched the festival while Score: A Hockey Musical kicked things off one year later.

Some disagree that the shakeup of opening-night films is working.

Noah Reid, left, and George Stroumboulopoulos are pictured in a scene from Score: A Hockey Musical, which opened at TIFF last year. The film received poor reviews. (Ken Woroner/Mongrel Media)

Score was universally panned. Creation received mixed reviews, with many critics saying the narrative was slow. Previous openers Passchendaele and Fugitive Pieces have also failed to make annual lists of the year's top Canadian films.

However, it could be a reflection of the selection process and not necessarily the movie's country of origin or genre. The opening night gala is well attended by the media and corporate sponsors so programmers usually choose a safe film, said Norm Wilner, vice-president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

It's something that won't rock the boat but likely won't blow the minds of cinephiles, either, he said.

"I mean corporate sponsors spend how many thousands of dollars to see the opening night gala, they don't want to see a film like M. Butterfly," Wilner said, referring to David Cronenberg dark drama that kicked off the festival in 1993.  

The opener also needs to be able to "fill a large screen and hold an audience of 3,500 people," Handling said. "It must be a strong, well-made film and hopefully come from a recognized director and feature recognized actors."

Music docs belong in film festivals

Wilner said 2011's choice of From the Sky Down wasn't so surprising given the success of The Promise: The Making of the Darkness on the Edge of Town, a documentary about Bruce Springsteen that was a big hit at TIFF a year earlier.

"It's U2," Wilner said. "They're big and they're socially conscious and it's a good bet that the people who spend that kind of money to go to the opening night gala have a couple of their CDs."

It also didn't hurt that Davis Guggenheim's 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Academy Award for best documentary.

As far as determining what is and is not an opening film, Wilner offers an example to distinguish the safe from the risky.

"The English Patient is about as edgy as they want to get," he said, "which was ultimately about the forbidden love between a Nazi collaborator and an adulteress."

And that's no slight to Anthony Minghella's 1996 drama, which won nine Oscars.

"It's a good film, don't get me wrong, but it's also the kind of movie that people can feel good seeing as an opening night picture," Wilner said.