Has the Toronto Film Festival Gotten Too Big for Its Own (or Anybody’s) Good?

As TIFF continues to swell, Variety's chief film critic wonders whether the event has become too much of a good thing.

the magnificent seven TIFF
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

How big is too big? That’s the question the team behind the Toronto International Film Festival really ought to be asking themselves as the festival, now in its 41st year, draws to a close: The event — the largest of its kind in North America, and arguably the world — hosted more than 1,200 screenings of 296 features this year.

With that many movies in the mix (more than double the Sundance lineup, and fully six times the official selection at Cannes), no outlet — not even Variety — can see and review everything, potential buyers don’t know what to check out, and publicists find it virtually impossible to bring attention to small, deserving films that get steamrolled by the sheer volume on offer.

Naturally, in an event of TIFF’s scale, there are bound to be masterpieces:

  • Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea”: about a man called upon to be a father and the shattering reasons he refuses to accept that responsibility.
  • Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”: as simple and profound as a poem in its appreciation of the blue-collar routine of a married New Jersey bus driver.
  • Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle”: the “RoboCop” director’s first film in a decade, a provocative exploration of sexual brutality and the unexpected way one woman refuses to accept the label of victim.
  • Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”: a splendid old-school musical in which Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play young lovers whose professional ambitions threaten to undermine their romantic chemistry.
  • Barry Jenkins’ exceptional “Moonlight”: an intimate look into the life of a lost and lonely young black man aching for connection.

But none of these are world premieres. Rather, TIFF offered locals (and quite a few press) the first chance they had to see the most talked-about films from Sundance, Cannes, Cannes again, Venice, and Telluride, respectively, while the films it does premiere tend to be of considerably shakier quality (the noteworthy exceptions being “Snowden” and “Their Finest”).

The TIFF team prides itself on its track record of having programmed the last decade’s worth of Oscar best picture winners, a couple of which (“The Hurt Locker” and “Crash”) were indies that found their first audiences in Toronto. But is it really so impressive to claim having screened the film that will go on to win the Oscar when it is just one of 296 features?

To put that figure in context, last year, the number of movies eligible for best picture — that is, features that qualified by playing a seven-day theatrical run in Los Angeles — was only 305. TIFF is dealing with practically the same size sample pool (whereas Telluride, which spans just four days over Labor Day weekend, boasts a tiny, carefully chosen lineup of a few dozen films, but can make the same claim of shepherding films to best picture every year but one since “Slumdog Millionaire” debuted there in 2008). What’s more, TIFF keeps growing, adding more films, as well as entirely new sections, such as 2005’s episodic TV-focused Primetime.

To put it bluntly, TIFF has become a dumping ground, serving up hundreds of new movies with hardly any discernible sense of curation. Aristic director Cameron Bailey seems to accept virtually any film with a couple starry names in the cast — provided that they agree to walk the red carpet, of course. And so, two weeks before “The Magnificent Seven” opens, Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington show up to support this thoroughly unnecessary big-budget remake (and downright odd choice of opening-night film), while its distributor, Sony, schedules the press junket in a downtown hotel. Working with limited resources, the Weinstein Company uses TIFF to launch “Lion,” which stars Dev Patel as an Indian orphan who located his family using Google Earth — pretty much the best movie that could be made of a story that’s spoiled by its own premise. And Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio making millions off the Minions, chooses TIFF to unveil its December crowd-pleaser, “Sing,” hosting a concert with Jennifer Hudson and Tori Kelly immediately following its premiere.

Not that there’s anything wrong with bringing such events to the city of Toronto. (The Tribeca Film Festival hosted the premiere of “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” in its first year and still hasn’t figured out its identity all these years later.) Queuing up an hour before each show after forking over exorbitant sums to see an upcoming blockbuster in the company of its director and cast — like Mark Wahlberg oil-rig actioner “Deepwater Horizon,” which could hardly be considered a “festival film” in any conventional sense — the local audiences are perhaps the most polite moviegoers to be found anywhere in the world, offering standing ovations to even the flattest artistic misfires. To wit, it took the Toronto crowd nearly a week to rebel against a corny ad, recycled from the previous year, for banking sponsor Royal Bank of Canada, shouting “No!” at its scripted gay-marriage proposal (one of seven such bumpers, amounting to 3 minutes and 45 seconds of partner content that patient audiences must sit through before every screening).

The trouble is that TIFF schedules such premieres back-to-back-to-back and three-at-a-time over the course of its first five days, burying interesting events — such as a truly special presentation of early Lumière brothers films, featuring live commentary by Thierry Fremaux, which played to a three-quarters-empty room — in favor of big marketing stunts, while bullying other festivals to back off their turf. It’s no coincidence that late-August’s Montreal World Film Festival finally gave up the ghost this year on the eve of its 40th anniversary: No other festival can compete with the sheer scale of TIFF, which has become a giant black hole, gobbling up movies and sponsors and countless hours from more than 3,000 volunteers … and for what?

Traditionally speaking, there are two kinds of film festivals: Markets and community fests. With the former (which include Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes), buyers sift through all the world premieres in search of gems worth distributing. Community-focused events tend to be less obsessed with premiere status, preferring — as next month’s New York Film Festival does — to bring the cream of the crop from the annual festival calendar to local audiences. TIFF aims to be both. But when no one — not the critics, not the buyers, not the retirees and college kids with nothing but time on their hands — can possibly see more than a few dozen movies, it bets the question: What point does TIFF ultimately serve? Do Canadian distributors and sales agents really benefit when their films get buried amid such a sprawling lineup, and when being selected is no indicator of quality? (Non-Toronto audiences have long since learned to steer clear of Canuck fare at TIFF, which is why the festival abolished its Canadian section a few years back, allowing them to stash duds such as “Brain on Fire” and “Unless” amid the overall lineup.)

Perhaps only festival director Piers Handling could say for sure, but the explanation seems to be the addition of the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theater, a fancy (read: expensive) flagship cinema launched in 2010 that now operates year-round. The film festival becomes the venue’s primary revenue driver, and as a result, programmers are motivated to add as many “Gala” and “Special Presentation” screenings as possible (this year, TIFF hosted twice as many world-premiere Special Presentations as in 2015). Tickets to these events are priced higher (a whopping $49) and are designed to fill the festival’s larger venues: the Princess of Wales, Visa Elgin Theater, Winter Garden, and Roy Thomson Hall — the latter being a massive concert hall whose nosebleed upper-balcony views are so far from the screen, it feels like watching a movie from space.

And so thousands of people fork over $58 (including fees) to watch Oliver Stone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt present “Snowden” one week before it opens in theaters, making it possible for TIFF to bring the smaller movies that tend to get lost in the program — gems such as Katell Quillévéré’s ultra-humanist heart-transplant drama “Heal the Living” or world-premiere debut “Lady Macbeth” — back to the Lightbox after the press and industry have left town. But speaking as someone who would appreciate having a chance to discover more of these treasures during the course of the week, the solution seems clear: Only by programming fewer movies overall, and by spotlighting the genuinely strong work, will the genuinely deserving movies stand a chance of breaking out. Until then, TIFF is caught somewhere between being an embarrassment of riches and just a plain old embarrassment.