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TORONTO AT 20: BOUNTIFUL, BELEAGUERED

It’s been called “the premier North American film festival,” “the user-friendly fest” and “the one-stop movie marketplace.” It also has a reputation as having one of the worst ticketing systems of any film event, long lines and sellouts – even for seemingly obscure titles.

The Toronto Intl. Film Festival opens Sept. 7 for its 20th edition with a combination of pride and trepidation. For in addition to a hefty slate of more than 220 features, it has to cope with a major cut in its government funding. News of the extent of that lost financial support came too late for the festival to fully compensate from private sector sponsorships. (See related story.)

But the scope of screenings, special events and seminars remains comparable to last year, with Toronto trying to cut corners without affecting service. The situation has both fest organizers and industry attendees a little nervous.

“The first concern is really the programming,” says fest director Piers Handling. “That came together very late but it did, I believe, turn into a very impressive slate of pictures.”

Roughly half the program – comprising 12 sections – is North American premieres. A third of the selections, including the omnibus “Four Rooms,” Claude Sautet’s “Nelly et M. Arnaud,” the Hong Kong “Fallen Angels,” Michael Verhoeven’s “A Mother’s Courage,” a new adaptation of “Cry the Beloved Country” and “Devil in a Blue Dress” with Denzel Washington, are world premieres. In addition to such perennial surveys as Asian Horizons and Latin American Panorama, Toronto has added Planet Africa and a special spotlight on Hungarian cinema.

Handling points out that the event in the past has anticipated finding a certain amount of product out of such festivals as Cannes and Berlin. That didn’t happen this year. And while he couldn’t be more pleased with how the fest finally took shape, it also means that a higher percentage of the schedule overlaps with the clutch of other early autumn events including Venice, Montreal, Telluride and Deauville.

More daunting than the budgetary trims is the steady growth in the number of international industry attendees it attracts. In recent years, Toronto has become a must stop for North American acquisition reps, and that fact has created a snowball effect, stepping up the number of foreign sales agents, national cinema reps and talent. This year a specially created Pan European initiative – Europeans in Toronto – has banded together as a sales/marketing force to rep 45 titles, most of which have available North American rights.

No market

Toronto has steadfastly refused to establish an official market component to its menu. However, it operates a sales office to accommodate many of the functions a fully operational market would coordinate.

Which leads to a dilemma that is twofold. One, the fest has never been able to work out a formula in which biz attendees properly remunerate the event for services received. Secondly, it simply doesn’t have the staff and volunteer force it truly needs to handle the crush of humanity winging in for the 10-day festivity.

“There probably isn’t another film event anywhere where you encounter as sharp a contrast between local filmgoers and visiting industry types,” observes a longtime out-of-towner and fest regular. “It really has two gestalts and (fest organizers) do their best to serve two masters. I think it’s crazy, and you inevitably pit one group against the other and frankly, if it were me, I’d favor the locals because you have to deal with them all year long.”

Ultimately, it probably is the Toronto moviegoers who get the best deal of the festival. They have become famous in industry circles as a great audience, and on the rare occasion they don’t respond enthusiastically to a picture, one best pack up the reels and head home. But until then, the Toronto fest can probably sleep soundly knowing that filmmakers want to play in the Canadian metropolis and that, present financial crunch aside, its status remains secure.

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