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Telluride vs. Toronto: The Battle for Oscar Supremacy

Toronto's divisive new strategy has put Telluride on the defensive as the 2014 fall festival season gets under way.

Toronto Film Festival Telluride Film Festival Battle
Sam Brewster for Variety

Healthy, even heated competition between film festivals is nothing new. Cannes was founded in the late ’30s as the French response to Venice. In recent years, Shanghai has felt the heat from the government-backed Beijing, while both SXSW and Tribeca have sought to position themselves as viable alternatives to Sundance.

Rarely, however, have such tensions spiked quite so visibly, or with such high stakes involved, as in the case of Telluride and Toronto.

Nestled deep in the Rocky Mountains, the 41-year-old Telluride Film Festival is an intimate four-day affair that screens a highly selective program for Hollywood elites and deep-pocketed movie buffs. The 39-year-old Toronto Film Festival is an 11-day press and industry behemoth, Byzantine in its complexity and Canadian in its efficiency, which unspools about 300 features and attracts journalists, publicists, filmmakers and dealmakers from all over the world. Two very different events, forced by the vagaries of art, commerce and the fall calendar to share many of the same movies, including those hotly coveted titles that will go on to win Academy Awards.

SEE ALSO: Can Telluride Continue to Steal Venice and Toronto’s Thunder?

By virtue of coming first, Telluride has beaten Toronto to the punch on four of the past six Oscar winners for best picture — “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “The King’s Speech” (2010), “Argo” (2012) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) — plus a number of Oscar bridesmaids like “127 Hours,” “Up in the Air” and “The Descendants.” Screened in this intimate environment, which presents itself as both a rarefied platform and a sort of egalitarian ideal of what moviegoing should be, these pictures drew early praise and awards predictions from an audience that, while much smaller and less press-packed than Toronto’s, has wooed a number of influential tastemakers over the years — from critics like the late Roger Ebert and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, to Oscar bloggers like Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, Sasha Stone of Awards Daily and Kristopher Tapley of HitFix.

It’s a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed by specialty-film distributors like Fox Searchlight (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years a Slave”) and the Weinstein Co. (“The King’s Speech,” “The Artist”), or major studios like Warner Bros., which scored major back-to-back successes with “Argo” and “Gravity,” both of which played Telluride (and Venice, in “Gravity’s” case) before going on to Toronto.

SEE ALSO: Toronto Film Fest Gets Tough on Film Premieres

“Telluride used to be a much quieter grassroots thing where the press would go and very quietly start to talk about your movie,” says Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution at Warner Bros. “And now it’s become much more of a first-out-of-the-gate positioning festival. The reception out of Telluride is something that starts a conversation.”

That shrewd combo of high-altitude exclusivity and Oscar-hype machinery has reliably produced a sort of megaphone-from-the-mountaintop effect, allowing Telluride to position itself as an insiders’ event with more class and clout than its bigger, more corporatized rivals. The narrative reached a climax of sorts last year with Telluride’s five-day 40th-anniversary deluxe edition, which included the first screenings of “12 Years a Slave,” generating rapturous acclaim and through-the-roof Oscar buzz a full week ahead of its scheduled appearance at Toronto. Adding insult to injury, Telluride also snagged pre-Toronto berths for “Gravity,” “Prisoners,” “Labor Day,” “Ida,” “The Invisible Woman,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “The Past,” “Tim’s Vermeer” and “Starred Up,” plus exclusive North American premieres of three acclaimed Cannes titles — “All Is Lost,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Nebraska” — that skipped Toronto altogether.

And so it came as little surprise that Toronto decided to get tough. In January, artistic director Cameron Bailey announced that, from now on, only world premieres and North American premieres would be permitted to screen during Toronto’s first four days — that all-important window when attendance is at peak levels and the media blitzkrieg is in full force. The message Bailey was sending to Toronto hopefuls was clear: You can still go to Telluride, but there will be consequences.

As the fall festival season gets under way (it kicks off with Venice on Aug. 27, followed by Telluride on Aug. 29 and Toronto on Sept. 4), the exact nature of those consequences remains to be seen. While the new policy has drawn no shortage of grumbling — accompanied by near-total radio silence from Telluride — Bailey says that overall reaction has been “overwhelmingly positive.” From his standpoint, scheduling those Telluride-bound titles during the second half of Toronto represents a principled alternative to not showing them at all. It may even address the common complaint that Toronto has become too front-loaded over the years; by distributing key titles more evenly across the 11-day time frame, the festival might just become manageable enough to encourage attendees to stay longer.

“We had a choice here. Like many other festivals, especially the big European festivals, we could have just said, ‘If it’s playing somewhere else, sorry,’” Bailey says. “We didn’t go that way. We tried to find a compromise.”

Still, one publicist who preferred to remain anonymous describes the new policy as “absolutely ludicrous. Toronto is literally the juggernaut of North America. I think it’s like David and Goliath, and I think (Bailey’s) being a big bully about it.”

Some would counter, however, that Telluride is hardly the little guy in this scenario.

“They want you to think they’re David. Oh, no,” says another publicist who also chose to remain anonymous. She describes Toronto’s policy as “passive-aggressive, but very transparent,” and vastly preferable to what she perceives as Telluride’s more manipulative tactics. These include the festival’s refusal to make special accommodations for press and industry, or to discuss its selections in terms of world premieres, acquisition deals and anything else that might dilute the purity of the Telluride experience.

“Of course they (say they) don’t care about premieres — they’re first,” she says. “If Telluride came a week after Toronto, they would care. They’ve got more people coming, more attention, more sponsors (than before), so they have to be able to get those premieres.”

Toronto isn’t the only festival recently affronted by Telluride’s tactics. In the past, Venice and Telluride had a cordial agreement that a film selected for both fests would play Venice first. (In 2005, Telluride even delayed its first screening of “Brokeback Mountain” by a few hours so that Venice could have the official world premiere.) But that changed last year, when Telluride sneaked three titles over the Labor Day weekend — Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known” and Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” — before their agreed-upon world-premiere screenings on the Lido, causing Venice fest director Alberto Barbera to cry foul.

“What really made me angry last year was the fact that we didn’t know that something was playing in Telluride before Venice,” Barbera says. “I told (Telluride co-founder) Tom Luddy, ‘Why didn’t you inform me the film was going to play over the weekend, when we scheduled it for Monday or Tuesday?’ ”

Relations between the two festivals have since been smoothed over (Barbera and Luddy are longtime friends), with Telluride having given the necessary assurances that from now on, films billed as Venice world premieres would indeed remain so.

“I really don’t want to be involved in any war between festivals,” Barbera says. “Our job is not to show how strong, how powerful and how important our festival is. We’re here to pick out the most interesting films and to help them to get the promotion they are waiting for.”

Admittedly, Venice wasn’t scooped by Telluride last year as badly as Toronto was. And in an era of ever more accelerated film coverage and increased emphasis on seeing movies first, Bailey says, Toronto needed to strike a more competitive pose — and, more importantly, to be truthful with audiences about whether they were seeing a true world premiere or not.

“If we are going to call something a world premiere, then it really should be the first time it’s screened in public,” he says. “And we can’t pretend anymore that if it has screened somewhere else, that it actually is a world premiere.”

It probably didn’t bother Toronto too much that its new honesty policy allowed it to deal Telluride an unusual slap in the face. In unveiling its typically massive film slate, the Toronto press office opted for the first time to disclose the true premiere status of each entry, effectively spilling the beans (or some of them, anyway) on Telluride’s lineup, which is usually kept under wraps until just before its Labor Day weekend kickoff.

Telluride representatives declined to comment for this story, and no distributors would confirm their Colorado-bound selections ahead of the festival’s official announcement. Still, based on reasonable deductions from Toronto’s announcement, the Telluride program almost certainly will include “Wild” (Fox Searchlight), Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow-up to last year’s Toronto-launched “Dallas Buyers Club”; Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” (the Weinstein Co.); Jon Stewart’s directing debut, “Rosewater” (Open Road); Ramin Bahrani’s Venice-bound “99 Homes”; and Ethan Hawke’s documentary “Seymour: An Introduction” — all of which will then make their Canadian or international premieres at Toronto. As usual, Telluride will host the North American premieres of Sony Classics’ Cannes entries, which this year include Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” and Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” and Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales.”

Although Fox Searchlight declined to comment, rumors persist that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” will make its North American bow at Telluride after opening Venice on Aug. 27, and before closing the New York Film Festival on Oct. 12; the film is bypassing Toronto altogether. And festival watchers haven’t ruled out the possibility that Telluride, with its practiced skill at nabbing major films under a tight veil of secrecy, may yet secure a secret screening of another of the fall’s most coveted titles.

Telluride wasn’t always such a creme-de-la-creme event, says Kathleen McInnis, a longtime publicist and festival-goer who remembers the days when the Colorado event had almost zero media presence or awards profile. Back then, the festival effectively provided a North American launchpad for select Cannes entries and a superb repertory program, two roles it continues to play to this day. At a certain point, however, it became clear that Telluride was determined to muscle its way into the awards-season game by pursuing and landing major fall titles more aggressively than ever — but unveiling them stealthily enough so as not to threaten their premiere status at Venice or Toronto.

“This is the advantage Telluride had over everyone else: smaller, contained, not so public,” McInnis says. “They don’t announce their sponsors until the last minute, they don’t announce their films until the last minute. That’s a huge advantage organizationally.” (Full disclosure: McInnis, who serves as director of the Palm Springs ShortFest, began programming international shorts for Toronto earlier this year.)

Things started to change noticeably around 2005, when the festival bowed “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and “Walk the Line”; followed by “The Last King of Scotland,” “Venus” and “Little Children” in 2006; and “Juno” and “Into the Wild” in 2007. Marking a symbolic shift in strategy, perhaps, 2007 also saw the retirement of Telluride co-founders Bill and Stella Pence, and the appointment of Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger, who now oversee the festival alongside Luddy.

Expectations were lowered for 2008, when the global financial crisis was taking a significant toll on festival sponsorship and attendance, as well as film production, a problem exacerbated by the writers strike. But that year, if anything, marked Telluride’s breakthrough, when it catapulted a then-little-known movie called “Slumdog Millionaire” to Oscar glory. Toronto played its part as well, amplifying the Telluride buzz and giving Danny Boyle’s film the People’s Choice Award, marking the beginning of the two festivals’ war for best-picture bragging rights.

There were stumbles for Telluride along the way — “infrastructure issues and growing pains,” McInnis says — including one year when the festival, feeling the financial pinch, introduced new passes that wound up getting oversold, causing many longtime attendees to be shut out of screenings. But by 2010, the year Telluride hosted the world premieres of “The King’s Speech” and “127 Hours,” as well as the unofficial North American bow of “Black Swan,” things were back on track.

“Over the past six, seven, maybe eight years now, what you’re looking at is a concerted effort to launch those top American hits from filmmakers who are particularly connected to the Telluride family,” McInnis says. “If you choose to be a Telluride filmmaker, you’re choosing to be in a different kind of family than at a market or at a larger festival.”

Still, that family connection hasn’t stopped some veterans from leaving the Telluride fold this year in favor of its nemesis to the north. Although his Colorado track record includes successful launches for “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman will be heading to Toronto for the world premiere of his latest comedy-drama, “Men, Women & Children,” pictured above. (Reitman is a Montreal native whose family is a major financial supporter of the Toronto fest.) Noah Baumbach, who brought “Margot at the Wedding” and “Frances Ha” to Telluride, has similarly opted for a Toronto world premiere for his latest, “While We’re Young.”

The reasons behind a film’s choice of launchpad can of course be fairly complex, and beholden to other factors beyond a mere festival pissing contest. Still, while Telluride can be a major boon for insta-hit Oscar contenders like “Argo,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave,” it can be harder going for a film that encounters a mixed reception, as Reitman’s “Labor Day” did last year. And it’s a dicier proposition still for emerging talents whose films require the full assembly line of worldwide press coverage, market-savvy audience exposure, social-media buzz and robust sales activity. In such a scenario, the value of a first-weekend slot at Toronto can hardly be underestimated.

“I love both festivals, having gone to both for 25 years,” McInnis says. “But if you’re thinking about your career and the business of your film, and your active engagement with regard to what your film does in the world, you need to look at Toronto.”

What Toronto’s policy has done is force people to choose, which is bad news for films and filmmakers, says Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker, a veteran of both festivals. At least one of his Telluride titles opted to skip Toronto this year, he says, because the director’s shooting schedule didn’t allow him to attend after the second weekend.

“I really hate to see this kind of situation. Both festivals are so important for these films to reach the public,” Barker says, noting that Toronto is hardly the only festival afflicted by an unhealthy obsession with world premieres. For that reason, he has considerable respect for Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper, who has recently accepted Sony Classics titles like “A Prophet,” “The Gatekeepers” and “No,” even though they had already screened at Telluride several months prior.

“They made an exception to their rule,” Barker says. “Can’t festivals make an exception, whether it’s for a film or someone’s schedule? It just seems a bit too rigid to me.”

Kroll is well aware that a studio like Warner Bros. has more options and resources available than a specialty player does, and she acknowledges that “Argo” and “Gravity” could probably have skipped either Telluride or Toronto and still enjoyed robust critical and commercial success. But if forced to choose between the two, she answers: “Where you can go for the broader opportunity, where you can serve your critical press and also position your movie for a worldwide audience, that would always be my pick. And what we’re finding in recent years is that Toronto is much more of a worldwide festival than it’s ever been.”

Incidentally, while Kroll confirmed that Warners will not be at Telluride this year, the studio will have a robust Toronto presence with David Dobkin’s opening-night entry, “The Judge,” as well as Shawn Levy’s “This Is Where I Leave You” and Philippe Falardeau’s “The Good Lie,” starring Reese Witherspoon. As for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” widely considered the studio’s prime awards contender, it will be unveiled at the New York Film Festival — which, in presenting “Birdman” and the world premiere of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” this year, has become yet another rising force on the fall festival landscape. Previously known for its relative indifference to world premieres, NYFF is an increasingly attractive firstrun venue for prestige titles, having hosted official galas in recent years for “The Social Network,” “Captain Phillips” and “Her,” as well as work-in-progress screenings of films like “Hugo” and “Lincoln.”

“It all comes back to following the money,” McInnis says. “What’s happening with New York this year is sort of a perfect representation of what the movement of festivals is. This is the game now.”