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Why Toronto Matters as Awards Season Moves Onto Fast Track

The Toronto Intl. Film Festival is no longer just one of the biggest fests in the world. As sequels, reboots and franchises dominate the 2019 box office, TIFF now represents a cross-section of the industry’s few remaining attempts at original feature filmmaking. And given numerous specialty film B.O. disappointments, few if any award contenders so far and a fourth quarter that seems more back-loaded with highbrow releases than most years in recent memory, the 2019 edition seems especially pivotal.

TIFF’s offerings include big-budget studio films that aspire to be more than tentpoles (Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari,” Warner Bros.’ “Joker”); award-season bait (A24’s “Waves,” Netflix’s “Marriage Story,” Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment’s “Judy”); acquisition hopefuls (“Jungleland,” “How to Build a Girl,” “Bad Education,” “The Burnt Orange Heresy”); docs; and foreign films.

Adding to the uncertainty are a slew of new streaming platforms, with a few owned by the newly supersized Disney, raising further questions about majors’ already shaky commitment to theatrical exhibition for films without recognizable brands. Fox Searchlight’s uncertain level of support from new owners Disney, and Amazon (in a Netflix-style move) now cutting the theatrical window on films like its Imax-bound adventure “The Aeronauts” and its Sundance pickup “The Report” to a couple weeks before they hit Amazon Prime, only further unsettles the specialty marketplace.

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“I think it’s a great opportunity for filmmakers now that everyone is investing in content, but at the same time, there’s too much product,” says TIFF executive director Joana Vicente, who is co-heading her first Toronto with artistic director Cameron Bailey. “So how does that product, especially the smaller, more specialized films, actually get seen? That’s scary, and then you have films that people have lots of hope will do well theatrically that got amazing reviews, like ‘Booksmart,’ that don’t live up to expectations.”

It’s a problem that Exhibitor Relations senior box office analyst Jeff Bock is all too familiar with. “Because of how the release calendar lines up and how many franchise films have taken over the media, it’s hard for these [specialty] films to gain any sort of foothold in theaters for longer than two weeks,” he says. “At the end of August, there are 10 feature-length releases and most of them are going into over 2,500 theaters — good luck trying to hold any of those. So when you play in summer, it’s much easier to get burned as an indie. And by the end of summer, when you think things are going to cool off, they don’t. That’s when the studios have dumped everything that they have. We know your indie film is probably better, but guess what? They have the marketing power. So even if you’re going to be lucky enough to be in 700 theaters, a bomb like ‘The Kitchen’ is going to be [on] 2,700 [screens].”

The dependence on festivals and the awards season as a launching pad is only likely to increase at those few risk-averse majors still making original titles — even ones featuring big stars, brand names and subject matter (like the racing drama “Ford v Ferrari”) that once might’ve been considered a safe summer bet.

“It’s an incredible, commercial film, but it also has quality performances, and we feel like it functioned on all cylinders,” says “Ford” producer Jenno Topping, who made the Matt Damon/Christian Bale-toplined film at Fox before Disney’s March acquisition of the studio. “So one of the ideas was to maximize its potential [along the lines of] a movie like ‘The Martian.’ It’s also just so beautifully made that to not give it its moment in the sun in the fall seems like a waste.” The bet paid off as the film was also accepted into the prestigious Telluride Fest.

Similarly, part of the “Joker” fest strategy seems to be to highlight the awards potential of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and position it as a character study as well as a DC Comics film.

Even with the backing of a studio, adult dramas face a field of landmines like mergers and regime changes. “This is a true Cinderella story, in the sense that [‘Ford v Ferrari’] is not an easy movie to get made in this climate, because it’s a very expensive [under-$100 million] drama with action,” Topping says. “But once the takeover happened, [we] had nothing but complete support and engagement from Disney. So thankfully we didn’t get hung up in any way in terms of the transition.”

Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard arrives in Canada with five titles, including Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” which earned Antonio Banderas a best actor award in Cannes. He ties TIFF’s increased significance in this year’s specialty market to the Oscars’ move from Feb. 24 to Feb. 9.

“It used to be at the end of March, so you had a very long time to maximize the value of your movie or pick a spot to open it,” Bernard says. “Now everything’s moved up a few weeks, and so Toronto becomes a much bigger Oscar showcase because the voting and dates have all changed.”

And with adult-oriented major studio fare like this year’s best picture winner “Green Book” from Universal becoming all the more rare, the importance of the film’s 2018 win of the TIFF People’s Choice Award (which has predicted best picture nominees and winners — with only one exception — since 2007) only grows. “ ‘Green Book’ would have disappeared if it hadn’t been for the Oscar [race],” Bernard says.

It’s something Vicente is well aware of. As the former head of IFP, she saw how the org’s Gotham Awards raised her organization’s profile and helped indie films gain traction.

In that vein, TIFF is launching an awards component, presenting honors to Meryl Streep (Steven Soderbergh’s TIFF player “The Laundromat”), “Joker” star Phoenix, Participant Media (behind fest entries “Just Mercy” and “Sing Me a Song”), Mati Diop (“Atlantics”) and Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”).

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Goldfinch”) will take home the Variety Artisan Award. “We are really excited about having the opportunity to honor amazing artistic achievements during the festival,” Vicente says. “At the same time, it is a fundraiser for the organization, and we’re given the opportunity to remind people of all of our activities year round.”

Making TIFF more of an awards-oriented fest — something its organizers resisted for years — may be one way to help its films gain attention and traction, and make the event a more attractive stop on the ever-competitive fest circuit.

But most importantly, TIFF offers films traction in a market with ever-increasing options from series that have sucked up talent and revenue that’s traditionally gone to features. As Bernard puts it, “it’s a business where the bottom line eventually catches up with you if you’re not paying attention to it.”

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