Canuck event a choice spot for pickups, premieres

TORONTO — No one, not even the main architects of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival success story is quite sure how it happened.

There are few easy explanations for how a small, indie Canadian festival managed to somehow make it to the upper echelons of the global fest hierarchy. Today, Toronto is widely considered to be among the big three international film festivals, alongside Cannes in the spring and Sundance in the winter. It’s been a long, strange trip since French arthouse pic “Cousin, Cousine” opened the inaugural Toronto fest back in 1976, filling in for last-minute no-show “Bound for Glory.”

At the time, the struggling Canadian event was simply one of many fledgling fests scattered across the continent, and most in Hollywood didn’t share the optimistic vision of fest founders Bill Marshall, Dusty Cohl and Henk van der Kolk. A quarter-century later, Toronto has become one of the choice spots to introduce pics in North America for studios, mini-majors and overseas distribs.

Toronto’s position as an ideal launch pad for quality, accessible fare was bolstered last year when DreamWorks pic “American Beauty” kicked-off its successful box office run and Oscar contention with a world premiere screening in the coveted Saturday Gala slot on opening weekend.

“For all of us inside, it’s just a series of small steps,” says Toronto director Piers Handling, who started at the fest as a programmer in 1982. “There were key years. ‘Chariots of Fire’ (in 1981) was probably the first big breakthrough this event had. ‘Chariots of Fire’ was this little British art film that went on to win a lot of Oscars and it was as important to the festival in those days as ‘American Beauty’ is today.

“It legitimized the event and, I think, popularized the festival in the eyes of the industry who saw festivals as arty and they didn’t want their film to be labeled a festival film. That turned people’s heads, especially south of the border.

“‘The Big Chill’ (1983’s opening pic) was another key festival film that went on to determine things,” Handling continues. “‘Diva’ (in 1981) was one of the big chapters in the festival history because it was a film that was released in France, died, and then came over here, was bought, was a big hit and made a lot of money in France. So the festival had a lot of impact on both sides of the Atlantic with that film.

“‘The Apostle’ (in 1997) was a big one because it was sold out of here for humongous amounts of money. Almost every year, there’s a buzz film that breaks out and gets everyone excited.”

In the process, Toronto has become a popular spot for film-makers from around the world, partly because it’s a good place to generate buzz for indie pics.

“I owe Toronto some marvelous memories. It was in Toronto that I became a director with an international audience,” said “Diva” helmer Jean-Jacques Beineix, quoted in Canadian journalist Brian D. Johnson’s new Toronto film fest retrospective “Brave Films, Wild Nights, 25 Years of Festival Fever” (Random House of Canada).

Industryites like the Toronto event because it is one of the rare major-league festivals that caters to a popular audience not unlike the usual crowd Friday night at the multiplex. So film execs can gauge public reaction to pics, unlike Sundance and Cannes.

“Toronto audiences are very receptive,” says Amir Malin, CEO of Artisan Entertainment. “It’s great if you’re launching your marketing campaign for a film or you’re looking to acquire a film.”

The festival has also grown into the most important annual showcase for Canadian films. Canuck pics have had a high profile since the earliest days of the fest, but the homegrown fare started to play a bigger role in the early 1980s during the tenure of festival director Wayne Clarkson.

Handling pulled together a major tribute to Toronto auteur David Cronenberg in 1983 and the all-Canuck Perspective Canada program was launched the following year under Handling’s guidance. Over the past few years, a host of Canadian pics have found U.S. and/or international distribution deals after fest screenings, including Lynne Stopkewich’s “Kissed,” Thom Fitzgerald’s “The Hanging Garden,” Francois Girard’s “The Red Violin” and Don McKellar’s “Last Night.”

Canadian producer Robert Lantos has seen the Toronto festival boost the profile of a number of his productions, notably “Black Robe,” “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Joshua Then and Now.”

But his fondest memory remains his first major pic as a producer, “In Praise of Older Women.” The pic opened the 1978 festival under a storm of controversy, helping turn the film into a box office success on its home turf. The Ontario Censor Board had demanded cuts to the film, which both the festival and Lantos insisted they would not make. The night of the premiere, fest organizers mistakenly oversold the Elgin Theatre, creating a near-riot on the streets of downtown Toronto.

The controversy — and the front-page attention it elicited — was certainly not bad news for Lantos, who arrived at the Elgin with director George Kaczender and the actors in horse-drawn carriages.

“That was great fun,” says Lantos. “Being at the center of a censorship storm and then seeing a huge stampede of people trying to get into the film. That opening night gave the film a presence on the radar screen. It was my first experience with the Toronto film festival and it was a delicious one.”

Another Lantos production, Denys Arcand’s “Stardom,” co-produced with Montreal’s Denise Robert, will open this year’s festival but the celebrity satire is unlikely to cause a similar controversy.

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