Before Oscar, film wowed Toronto crowds and put fest on Hollywood's radar

1981 was the year that the TIFF came into its own. Were it not for the breakout success of such pictures as “Chariots of Fire,” which went on to win the best picture Oscar, Toronto’s little film festival would have escaped Hollywood’s notice altogether that year.

Only 6 years old and known then as the Festival of Festivals, the Toronto fest still bore the marks of a homespun event. Organizers had a hard time convincing some of the city’s exhibitors to release their screens, forcing festgoers to take taxis to far-flung locations around the city. The theaters that they did secure, like the Towne and the Elgin, suffered from poor sound and projection problems.

Directors feared they would have to make cuts to their entrants, as Ontario’s censors scoured pics like Ivan Passer’s “Cutter’s Way” for salacious content. A year earlier, when organizers had scored a coup by luring Jean-Luc Godard for a special tribute, censors had allowed an uncut version of his 1975 pic “Numero Deux” to screen — but only to a limited audience.

Meanwhile, government officials threw a contest where entrants could win one of five salmons.

But the festival, growing fast in size and selection, was changing. Buck Henry was there that year and Peter Fonda attended to promote his latest pic, “Death Bite” (aka “Spasms”). Some events and screenings were so crowded that fire officials were forced to shut them down. Demand was so great for the screening of “Ticket to Heaven” that it created a melee of pushing and shoving. Variety called it “a mob scene.”

All this attention clearly helped boost a picture’s prospects elsewhere. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Diva” went on to become a hit in the U.S. after failing in Europe. But that was nothing compared with “Chariots of Fire,” the story of British athletes training and competing in the 1924 Olympics: It opened in Toronto and foreshadowed the now-standard practice of using the fest as a launchpad for Academy Award campaigns.

Before he would take home the Oscar statuette, “Chariots” producer David Puttnam would have to settle for winning the Toronto fest’s audience award, which came with no cash prize and instead a plaque. But fittingly, for Canada, the honor was sponsored by the Labatt Brewing Co.

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