Brexit clouds hang overhead, but British films and filmmakers remained center of the international stage at Toronto Intl. Film Festival. The British industry’s success in turning out high caliber, diverse, and female-led projects helped it stay relevant at a festival that has arguably done more than any other in terms of gender parity.
“What’s been encouraging since I have been here is the engagement with the diversity standards and you can see that coming through with Sarah Gavron’s ‘Rocks,’ Rose Glass’ ‘Saint Maude,’ Lisa Barros D’Sa [and Glenn Leyburn’s] ‘Ordinary Love,’ and Coky Giedroyc’s ‘How to Build a Girl,’” says Neil Peplow, the British Film Institute’s recently installed director of international affairs. “It will really help the U.K.’s position internationally because it will speak to a diversity of stories and perspectives that haven’t been seen. That’s going help with the U.K.’s positioning not just at TIFF, but other key festivals.”
BFI-backed projects at TIFF included Marjane Satrapi’s Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive,” Peter Cattaneo’s “Military Wives,” and Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” with Renee Zellweger as a late-career Judy Garland in London.
For the U.K.-based sales outfits repping films at the festival, Toronto is a route into North America and the wider world – despite not having an official set-up a la Cannes’ Marche or the EFM at Berlin.
“It’s an undeclared market,” says Charlie Bloye, head of Film Export U.K., which had BFI and Department for International Trade backing to run a stand for the Brits. “It’s the starting pistol for the Oscar race and if you have got awards-friendly films then Toronto becomes incredibly important,” Bloye says. “We collect feedback on business done and it is far in excess of anything done on any of our other umbrella stands.”
An unintended consequence of there being no official market is that there is no lack of prestige in working off a stand alongside your peers, meaning the major players are at the Film Export-run space. The 2019 lineup includes Altitude, Bankside, Cornerstone, Film Constellation and WestEnd.
Cornerstone has been in town with Gregor Jordan’s Australia-set “Dirt Music.” Kelly Macdonald stars as a woman stranded in a remote fishing town, in an unhappy relationship, who has a life-changing encounter with an enigmatic outcast. “Its epic nature will appeal to mothers and daughters of all generations,” says Cornerstone’s Alison Thompson. “There is a shortage of female-skewed material in the indie sector.”
WestEnd’s biopic of singer-songwriter Helen Reddy, “I Am Woman,” helmed by Unjoo Moon and produced by Rosemary Blight of London-based Goalpost Pictures, opened the Special Presentations section. “It’s great that TIFF gave a film with a strong, timely message of equality such a significant positioning,” says WestEnd managing director Maya Amsellem. She adds that Toronto is “one of the best festivals for films such as ‘I Am Woman’ to connect directly with both audiences and distributors.”
Meanwhile, the Brexit clock is ticking. Many of the U.K. sales outfits may be based in Blighty, but are run and heavily staffed by non-U.K. nationals, causing uncertainty and anxiety. “Brexit is more than technical, it’s personal for these people,” Bloye says.
The situation heightens the pressure on the BFI to play its part in highlighting the U.K. film industry is open for international business, and it ran several events during the festival. Peplow says it is about demonstrating to the world “that we are looking for international partners.” Activities included a lunch with Canada’s Telefilm. “Canada is a really important coproduction territory for us. It’s also about saying to our usual coproduction partners in Europe and across the globe and people who are investing in the country that Brexit will not change anything in terms of our attitude and the importance of the [international] market.”
One possible bit of upcoming international trade, meanwhile, could see the homegrown effort to promote diversity paying dividends further afield. “We’re looking at how we can export the diversity standards,” Peplow reports. “Certain countries have indicated they are interested in whether or not we can help them roll out the standards out in their own film industries.”