TORONTO — Last year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival was defined by Sept. 11 and it will be a significant date again this year. There will be special 9/11-themed programming on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and many film execs have been wondering how the massive one-year anniversary media coverage that week will impact on the promotional opportunities at the Canuck festival.
Up until the evening of Sept. 10, the Toronto fest was rolling along in its usual up-tempo form. But all that enthusiasm disappeared first thing the morning of Sept. 11 as horrified fest staffers and folks from the film biz learned of the attacks south of the Canadian border.
Within minutes, a group of journalists had gathered in front of the large-screen TV in the press office to stare blankly at the CNN coverage. All of a sudden, previous talk about film sales, star sightings and snaring tickets to Galas seemed trivial compared to what was happening in the real world.
A shaken fest director Piers Handling held a hastily-organized press conference late in the morning where he said fest manage-ment was looking seriously at canceling the entire event. By the afternoon, they announced that the festival would press-on in scaled-down fashion. But the buzz never returned that week. The Intercontinental Hotel on Bloor, which housed many of the film-company offices, is usually a hub of activity, with non-stop inter-views and business confabs. But the hotel corridors were eerily quiet and empty for much of the rest of the week.
The official parties were all nixed, but there were smaller-scale dinner parties and get-togethers because people still felt the need to meet and to escape their hotel rooms and the non-stop loop of the 9/11 footage on CNN.
The Toronto festival ground to a halt Sept. 11 and, for several hours, fest organizers contemplated canceling the event altogether. The festival eventually limped back to life, but as a completely different event. Organizers decided to strip the festival of all of its glitzy trappings, including nixing all official parties, and dozens and dozens of interviews were canceled.
Making matters worse, all of the international filmmakers, producers, actors, execs, publicists and journalists were stranded in Toronto because so many flights in North America had been grounded. And many of those stuck found it hard to focus on a film
festival that suddenly seemed trivial when compared to events elsewhere.
Toronto festival director Piers Handling says that many film execs were worried about playing their films Sept. 11 this year and the media megasplash planned for that week is of concern to everyone involved in marketing pics. But most say they expect Toronto to work just as well as usual as a launching pad for film.
“Despite everything else, life goes on,” notes Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing. “You can’t ignore the past, but you also can’t be consumed by it.”
Last year, Lions Gate had two pics set to screen Sept. 11, “The Grey Zone” and “Lovely and Amazing.” Those screenings never happened because all of the Toronto theaters went dark for the day and, though they played during the day later in the week, much of the punch of their Toronto preems was lost.
“You have to feel bad for the filmmakers, who’ve put years of their lives into these films,” says Ortenberg. “It added extra sadness to the moment.”
Some execs told fest organizers this year that they should shift the dates — it takes place Sept. 5-14 — so as not to include the anniversary. But fest boss Handling says it is near impossible to move the event because of the crowded fall film festival calendar and problems with the availability of venues in Toronto.
Though there was some initial nervousness on the part of the studios, 9/11 has not affected the amount of talent coming to Toronto. The bigger factor, per Handling, is the worldwide economic slowdown in the entertainment biz. So all the companies are coming back, but many are sending fewer staffers.
The terrorist attacks created the biggest crisis in the history of the Toronto festival, and the effects still echo.
“After Sept. 11, we brought a different set of eyes to the films,” says Handling. “In hindsight, it was really interesting to have gone through that. Sept. 11 made us aware that you can’t isolate yourself from the world because the ripple effect of events elsewhere is going to end up on your own doorstep. From the movies, you get a complete X-ray of what’s going on in those societies and that’s a great window on the world that a film festival can provide.”
The fest will go dark on the morning of Sept. 11 this year, up until 11 a.m., to mark the anniversary of the morning attacks. Screenings, press conferences and events at the Rogers Industry Center will resume after 11 a.m. But the festival offices will remain open, if guests and/or staff wish to gather. The counseling services of Warren Shepell Consultants also will be available that day.
A number of pics with 9/11 subject matter have been programmed for the anniversary, including both evening Gala selections.
The early Gala pic will be the world premiere of “The Guys,” based on the acclaimed one-act play by Anne Nelson, and starring Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia. LaPaglia plays a fire captain who has lost eight of his men in the World Trade Center towers collapse and he turns to an editor (Weaver) to help him pen the eulogies he’s forced to deliver. The pic was directed by Jim Simpson, who helmed the legit production, and was co-written by Nelson and Simpson.
The late Gala film will be the North American preem of “11/09/01,” a compilation of short films inspired by the events on Sept. 11. Film-makers Claude Lelouch, Sean Penn, Ken Loach, Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Shohei Imamura, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mira Nair, Idrissa Ouedraogo, and Danis Tanovic each created a work that lasts 11 minutes, nine seconds and contains only one frame. The artistic producer of “11/09/01” is Alain Brigand, the producers are Jacques Perrin and Nicolas Mauvernay, and it is a Wild Bunch presentation.
Also on Sept. 11, the fest will screen “Reno: Rebel Without a Pause,” directed by Nancy Savoca. It is the film of Reno’s one-woman standup show that takes a scathing look at sanctimony and patriotism post-Sept. 11.