Toronto International Film Festival 2011

It comes as little surprise to the film community that Toronto kicks off with a documentary.

After all under doc programmer Thom Powers, who began his tenure in 2006, the festival has managed to bring doc royalty, including Barbara Kopple, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, to the Canuck city. He has also seen a slew of his selections go on to score Academy Award nominations, including “Food, Inc.” (2009), “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (2009) and last year’s “Inside Job,” which was the first doc in Powers’ tenure to win an Oscar.

“When I came to Toronto, my aim was to make as much noise around documentaries as I could so that they could be on same playing field as (narrative) films with much bigger budgets and bigger publicity teams,” Powers says.

In his inaugural year, Kopple’s Dixie Chicks doc, “Shut Up & Sing,” made its world premiere as a Gala presentation. It was the first time a U.S. docu had landed the prestige slot.

“I think seeing the success of that premiere as well as last year’s success with the Bruce Springsteen doc (‘The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town’) gave the organization confidence that documentaries could command major attention and could really make sense for opening night,” he says.

“There have been some changes in the last few years that has enabled (the fest) to play more of a key role in giving docs the same profile for award season that fest has always played for fiction films. One of those key changes is the Academy’s theatrical qualification rule.” (The screening eligibility date was extended from Aug. 31 to Dec. 31.)

The rule change along with Powers’ constant interaction with filmmakers throughout the year has allowed him to steadily build on Toronto’s standing as a premier documentary fest.

While the Detroit native and former doc producer-director leaves Manhattan in the summer for Canada’s cooler climate, he spends most of the remaining year in New York where he serves as the artistic director of the IFC Center’s “Stranger Than Fiction” weekly documentary series and Doc NYC Festival. He also consults on programming for the Miami Intl. Film Festival and teaches at NYU. But his work for TIFF is never off his radar.

“To a certain extent I’m tracking projects all year for Toronto,” Powers says. “Every year I try to build on the previous one.”

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