Toronto battles the bulge

Fest copes with enviable midlife crisis

MONTREAL – The folks running the Toronto Intl. Film Festival love to point out that the fest is now one of the world’s most important film get-togethers — and they’re right. But has Toronto grown too big for its own good? Is there such a thing as being too successful?

Toronto has been on a rapid-fire growth spurt for at least a decade now, as it worked its way toward grabbing the title as North America’s biggest film fest and one of the most influential on the planet. Obviously the industry and media believe Toronto is a key place to be each September — that’s why they turn up in Canada’s largest city every fall for the 10-day festival. But in the hotel corridors, screening rooms and parties, there is always a fair bit of complaining as well.

It can be complicated to snare tickets to public screenings, given that so many are sold outright and, worse yet, ink-stained media wretches and industryites are even less amused when they arrive to find not a free seat in sight at a press-and-industry screening.

“The most complicated thing in Toronto is to go to see a movie,” says Canuck producer Kevin Tierney (“Bon Cop, Bad Cop”).

Maybe the second most complicated thing in Toronto is gaining press and industry attention for your pic if it’s an unheralded art film without any major stars. Toronto routinely snares some of the hottest American fall titles, including a number of A-list Hollywood pics that the studios hope are bound for Oscar glory.

Those films come with some of the world’s top movie stars, and, during the fest, the Toronto media focuses the vast majority of its coverage on those celebrities. If you have a low-budget Korean pic from a first-time director — or even an American pic with no buzz attached — it is all too easy to get lost in the shuffle.

“The one thing I think distributors should think about is, if you have a film that’s smaller, you have to worry about being eclipsed by big stars,” says John Bain, senior veepee of distribution at Toronto-based Maple Pictures. “So if we have a really small film with no stars, what’s the press we’ll get out of it, especially if it’s Brad Pitt day (at the fest)?”

Many in the biz are not amused by the fact that Hollywood films take up so much space at the Toronto fest.

“There are these big studio films that we in the independent community don’t like to see dominating the festival,” says ThinkFilm CEO Jeff Sackman. “That’s not what a film festival should be all about.”

Lots of business always takes place at Toronto, but some, including a number of national film bodies and the City of Toronto, wish the fest would set up a formal market, something fest organizers have resisted. In spite of the industry pressure, festival co-director Noah Cowan says the event has no plans to give in.

Last year, roughly 3,000 industry players turned up for the Canuck festival and, per organizers, 2,300 delegates had registered this year by mid-August, approximately 300 more delegates than had registered at the same point last year. Cowan insists he has no worries about the growing industry presence.

“I think the more international buyers and sellers, the better,” he says. “I don’t see why the numbers can’t increase.”

In fact, the festival is actually recruiting new buyers and sellers. Fest recruiters spent a lot of time in Asia this year in an attempt to boost the amount of industryites from that part of the world. The festival has also targeted different media around the world in an effort to increase attendance from countries that are not well-represented at the fest.

“It’s very useful to have media from around the world to be educators and cheerleaders for their national cinema,” Cowan says.

It is expected that media attendance will be around 1,000 this year, roughly the same as last year.

The fest also continues to increase the number of films it screens annually. In 2005, the feature total was 335 films; last year, it hit 352 features.

But the biggest growth is in terms of audience. There were 305,000 admissions in 2005, including both public and industry, and that surged to 340,843 in 2006.

The more films there are, the harder it is to get a little share of the spotlight, a problem of which Cowan and his colleagues are well aware. “The bigger films we are getting are real big,” Cowan says. “So if you’re not one of the headline-grabbers, what do you do?”

Cowan insists the smaller films still do well at Toronto, noting that a slew of films nabbed North American distribution last year, even if most didn’t garner big-money blockbuster deals. In an effort to help these smaller films, the fest — for the first time — is holding press screenings in New York and Los Angeles for films that have no North American distribution. There are also plans to increase the number of press and industry screenings for films without distribution.

In spite of the grumbling, the bottom line is that most distributors and producers still fight to get their pics into Toronto, and buyers and sellers flock to the Ontario city each September.

“Toronto is still a very good venue for us to find films and to promote films,” says Bain from Maple Pictures. “It’s a rare fall film that’s not good for Toronto. It’s rare that you don’t at least contemplate launching at Toronto.”

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