Cost of Living

TIFF's so money! Why Toronto slays at predicting box-office hits

The Cost of Living dives into the world of box-office receipts to see if TIFF's top award can predict a film's box-office success and out-earn the winners of other festivals.

People's Choice Award winners out-earn Cannes' Palme d'Or winners almost 4-to-1

Actor Mahershala Ali, right, greets fans as he arrives at the premiere of People's Choice Award winner Green Book at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11, 2018. (Reuters)
Listen11:46

The top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival has a surprising superpower.

TIFF's coveted People's Choice Award is able to predict international box-office winners long before critics and crowds have had a chance to see the movies. And the festival's top award does so better than counterparts around the world, including the prestigious Festival de Cannes.

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The numbers don't lie. And no matter which metric is used, TIFF comes out on top.

Since 2000, movies that won the People's Choice Award at TIFF earned in total more than $3-billion US worldwide, compared to films that won Cannes' Palme d'Or, which made over $815-million, according to the movie industry database The Numbers.

Diversity is good for business

In recent years, TIFF has emerged as the festival with the best crystal ball for predicting Oscar wins. Its top prize winners have garnered 102 Academy Award nominations and 36 Oscar wins since 2000 — five times more wins and nods than Cannes films.

But it's the astounding difference in movie revenues that inspired Nouman Ashraf, assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, to use TIFF as a case study on why diversity is good for business.

Turns out, the secret to TIFF's box-office superpower may just be Toronto's diverse population. After all, the top prize is an audience award chosen by the people of Toronto.

"They represent a global audience," Ashraf said. "When they actually pick what resonates with them, what they're doing is they're giving a proxy vote for what will in fact resonate with a global audience literally across the globe."

Nouman Ashraf, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, says TIFF is not only making an economic contribution to the city, but a cultural contribution to Canada and the film industry. (CBC)

Here's where this story turns into a lesson in Grade 8 social studies.

Canada is a mosaic. And Toronto is among the most diverse cities in the world. More than half the population of Toronto identifies as visible minority — higher than New York City or London.

TIFF's artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey said the festival itself aims to be inclusive, both in the screening selection and in making the tickets accessible to the public.

Artistic director Cameron Bailey says TIFF has always a 'festival for the people.' It was designed as a festival that would bring some of the glamour of Cannes to a public audience in a big city. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

"This is a festival for the people — Toronto in all its glory," he said. "I see people of different ages and shades and sizes and backgrounds watching movies together. That collective experience in a movie theatre is still really important to us — it's the core of who we are."

Audience vs. jury award

TIFF's audience prize was first awarded in 1978, with the winner based on the votes of people attending screenings. Anyone who attends a film at the festival can vote on the People's Choice Award winner. 

The Palme d'Or, by contrast, is selected by an elite jury of artists. Past presidents include art-house darlings Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch and David Cronenberg.

By definition, TIFF winners are more "commercial" than their counterparts at Cannes.

And the box-office gap widens even more when we look at a third film festival for comparison — the Sundance Film Festival.

WATCHA quick comparison of TIFF vs. Cannes vs. Sundance

Check out how TIFF winners' box office and awards compare to Sundance and Cannes. 0:58

Admittedly, the Sundance and TIFF festivals are very different from one another, though the same films routinely screen at both festivals.

Like TIFF, Sundance also has an audience award. Winners of that award have collectively earned under $300-million since 2000, which is even less than Palme d'Or winners. 

The makeup of the Sundance audience may be to blame.

Sundance takes place in Park City, Utah — a small city east of Salt Lake City with a population under 10,000. 

Precious executive producer Lisa Cortés said, 'I think TIFF is definitely a people's festival.' (Luciana Pampalone)

Festival goers have to fly in to attend screenings, making the audience a self-selected group of indie film lovers who also have the money and time to travel. 

By contrast, TIFF is famous for its affordable and accessible rush tickets — another factor in the audience's diversity.

One of the producers of Precious, the 2009 Oscar-winning film that screened at all three festivals, remembers the glitz and glamour of all three red carpet events.

But at TIFF, what stood out for Lisa Cortés was the people — Canadians.

"I think TIFF is definitely a people's festival," Cortés recalled.

"I've always enjoyed the folks I've met while I've been waiting in line to see films — people who live in Toronto and live in Canada and said, 'You know, we took the week off so that we could come to this festival.'"

"I think that really speaks to the love of cinema and the great curation that happens at TIFF with a broad range of films they present," she said.

When his film Precious won the 2009 People's Choice Award at TIFF, director Lee Daniels, left, dedicated the win to festival co-director Bailey, right, for his support of the filmmaker over the years. (C.J. LaFrance/Getty Images)

The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sept. 15.


Reporting by Tracy Fuller

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