Hollywood executives will be descending en masse beginning Thursday on the Toronto Film Festival — which is 180 degrees from the first festival in 1976, when U.S. distributors snubbed the event.
Canadian Secretary of State John Roberts (who also was the minister of culture) had invited Hollywood execs to attend the first fest and talk about possible joint ventures with local filmmakers. Fest director Bill Marshall said the seven Hollywood studio chiefs assured him they would attend, but then ignored the event. So the fest featured a “panel session” with seven empty chairs on the stage and name tags indicated the missing septet: David Picker (Paramount), Ron Miller (Disney), David Begelman (Columbia), Frank Wells (Warner Bros.) Ned Tannen (Universal), Alan Ladd Jr. (Fox) and Mike Medavoy (United Artists).
“I am amazed at their combination of arrogance and stupidity,” Marshall told the audience who showed up.
The studios shrugged it off, telling Toronto execs it wasn’t their policy to enter “domestic” festivals, even though they sent new films to New York and San Francisco.
On Oct. 21, 1976, Variety ran the headline “Fury in Canada at U.S. Snub.” As the fest concluded, reporter Sid Adilman wrote, “The U.S. majors got lambasted publicly every day from the start to finish of Toronto’s week-long Festival of Festivals for A) failing to send representatives to talk or B) failing to send U.S. films.”
Canadians said the snub was a bad business move, since their country represented the No. 1 audience for movies outside the U.S., with $66 million in net film rentals for the previous year. And U.S. films represented $180 million of the total $200 million at the year’s Canada box office.
Marshall, who founded the fest with Henk van der Kolk and Dusty Cohl, said, “I wanted to do something very big for the Canadian film industry.” He added, “In Canada, we needed a platform. We don’t have the crews, cameramen or scriptwriters yet. Maybe we will in time, but not now.”
There were a series of peace talks in the next 12 months. In 1977, Variety ran the headline “Cooperation Replaces Condescension.” To show that the studios had atoned, the fest opened Sept. 9 with an American icon: Fonzie. Henry Winkler brought a reel from his film “Heroes.” Hollywood was also represented by the Al Pacino film “Bobby Deerfield” and a few scenes from Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Since then, Toronto has been a key date on the Hollywood calendar, while other factors have also changed drastically in the 39 years.
Originally Toronto was billed as a “Festival of Festivals,” intending to showcase only films that had screened elsewhere. The 1976 startup got official endorsements from Berlin, Cannes, Edinburgh, Moscow, Karlovy Vary and Taormina. However, in the 21st century, Toronto has been in a turf war with Telluride, Venice and other fests over which one gets to screen a film first.
And one other important thing has changed. Though Marshall observed the lack of above and below-the-line talent in Canada, the industry has burgeoned so much that California has been pushing hard to bring production back to the state.