Toronto Film Festival Soldiers on Through COVID-19, but Where Are the Movie Stars?

TIFF Bell Lightbox
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

In the Toronto Film Festival world premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen,” a lonely Ben Platt belts out: “When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around, do you ever really crash or even make a sound?”

That question could well apply to a laundry list of absent talent and filmmakers with projects at the Canadian festival, whose organizers pulled off a successful (and partially in-person) 2021 program. The festival was thoughtful and inspiring in places and boasting some of the most exhaustive health and safety protocols from a festival in the coronavirus era, but it’s still fair to ask — where are the movie stars?

Toronto, particularly in recent years, has become an important launchpad for award season contenders and premium studio projects. This normally guarantees heavy traffic from A-list stars and premieres of coveted, high-brow commercial fare, the likes of which aren’t seen as often at haughtier companion festivals like Cannes and Venice.

But the friendly streets of downtown Toronto were nearly empty. There was one swanky rooftop soiree (a sparse affair for Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho”). Festival headquarters at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and adjacent grand screening venue Roy Thomson Hall, normally cut off to street traffic, stood with nary a fan barricade. Autograph seekers, paparazzi and onlookers lined up by the handfuls instead of the hundreds. Even one observant border patrol agent at Toronto International Airport remarked to a Variety staffer that few A-listers had come through their gates for reentry to the United States.

The most obvious cause here is the coronavirus pandemic, which has hampered attendance across festivals in Cannes, Venice and Telluride (though the latter two had some serious star power behind their projects, many of which premiered two weeks later at TIFF). Industry insiders with whom Variety spoke cited intense travel restrictions from the Canadian government, which only opened borders to the U.S. on Sept. 7 before the festival’s start on Sept. 9.

“With Venice and Telluride, it was clearer early on who could get in and when. A lot of people had to make difficult choices about where to put their resources and time,” said one top talent rep.

The talent that did show worked overtime, participating in marathon press days, premieres and special TIFF conversations. They included “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” star Jessica Chastain; “The Power of the Dog” and “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” star Benedict Cumberbatch; “Belfast” star Jamie Dornan; “Dune” director Denis Villeneuve; and “Dear Evan Hansen” star Ben Platt. In any other year at TIFF, these would be the faces you’d see at baggage claim before stepping foot into the city. In 2021, they were among the only bright lights to drum up excitement.

COVID complications also forced some stars to choose between work and supporting their official selection titles. Zendaya broke hearts on social media when she said she could not turn up to support the North American premiere of “Dune” because she was on the set of HBO’s “Euphoria.” Zendaya’s co-star Rebecca Ferguson was the only actor from the huge sci-fi ensemble to turn up to TIFF with Villeneuve.

A dearth of movie stars also had a downstream effect on other parts of the show business economy — including media that populate the red carpet. When Dornan stepped onto the red carpet for Monday night’s premiere of “Belfast,” instead of a throng of people yelling for him to look this way or that, the mood was relatively quiet and calm, says “ET Canada Weekend” host Sangita Patel.

Where there’s usually 60 photographers pointing their cameras at the star, there were about six. And instead of squeezing in one question with the actor as he made his way down the line of 100 reporters, there were only about 10 outlets present, so Patel had a 10-minute long chat with the actor, diving deep into his role and the action behind the scenes.

For the reporter, getting a chance to conduct meaty interviews with the likes of Dornan and his “Belfast” director Kenneth Branagh, “Dune” duo Villeneuve and Ferguson, or Cumberbatch and Chastain was a stroke of good luck.

“I don’t think we went into TIFF saying, ‘Okay, Brad Pitt is gonna show up.’ It was more like, ‘Is the director gonna come? Are the producers gonna come?’” Patel said, explaining how this year’s preparations felt different than festivals past.

Although the buzz around the film festival was certainly different, she still worked 15-hour days between all the TIFF events. “I love TIFF — these are our Oscars in Canada, and I just love the vibe of it,” Patel said, adding that she missed two things in particular during this pared-back TIFF: the fashion and the fans.

“They could’ve totally just said, ‘This is too risky. We’re not going to do TIFF,’ but they put all these protocols in place and made sure this was still happening. It’s so important for a city, and so I think next year, we’ll be in full gear,” she concluded.