Toronto International Film Festival takes a gamble on premieres policy

Toronto Film Festival plays hardball with Telluride this year
Toronto takes a stand in the competitive film festival circuit
A rich slate at Toronto Film Festival seems to bode well for its new screening policy

The Toronto International Film Festival announced a large piece of its slate Tuesday, and on the list are world premieres directed by some of the entertainment world's heavy hitters, including Jason Reitman, Noah Baumbach, Chris Rock and Chris Evans.

All of these films will likely be screening in the all-important first four days of the festival, from Thursday (Sept. 4) to Sunday (Sept. 7), when media attention is the strongest and when movies set for release in the coming award season can be made or broken.

But not on the list, at least as of now (another round of main feature announcements happens next month), are two of the most anticipated movies of the year: "Fury," the World War II story starring Brad Pitt, and "Unbroken," the WWII story directed by partner Angelina Jolie.

There are all kinds of reasons big films might skip major festivals. But these movies, along with some other high-profile ones, may not wind up at Toronto because of a more specific reason--namely, a decision by Toronto's leaders to adopt a rule that plays hardball in the wake of the rise of a rival, the Telluride Film Festival, traditionally held the weekend before Toronto.

The change is born of a quietly competitive realm of the entertainment business in which Toronto — long the North American showcase for the biggest fall films — felt it has been losing ground.

Take last year. Awards and commercial favorites such as "Dallas Buyers Club," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" all received prime first-weekend slots at Toronto. All were listed as at least North American premieres. But not all premieres are created equal: "Dallas Buyers" was a true world premiere, "12 Years" had a "sneak screening" at Telluride and "Gravity" played earlier at both the Venice Film Festival and Telluride.

While technically just sneaks, these screenings amounted to de facto premieres, Toronto organizers argued. Telluride's growing profile was depriving their festival, leaders felt, of some of the attention one gets from having a true premiere — and in festival currency, nothing is more valuable than being the first place to show a movie.

So a number of months ago, Toronto festival director Piers Handling and artistic director Cameron Bailey implemented a new policy. Films that screen at Telluride the previous weekend  will not be eligible to screen in Toronto's opening four days. And indeed, if "Gravity" or "12 Years" were to have come out in 2014 and followed the same Telluride path, neither would be eligible to play the first weekend of Toronto.

There are some significant consequences to this decision, at least as far as festivals are concerned. Because the new policy means studios must essentially choose between Telluride and Toronto, there will be more true world premieres at Toronto this year. On the other hand, it also means that some films will choose Telluride and won't be at Toronto at all. (Of course, it's also possible at least some movies end up at Toronto because Telluride, with a much smaller slate, ends up passing on them; these decisions aren't always in a studio's hands.)

The reduction in the overall number of movies Toronto now has to choose from may be one reason why the festival slate contains a surprisingly big commercial thriller like Antoine Fuqua's "The Equalizer" reboot starring Denzel Washington. It's hardly the type of upscale, awards-ready movie that is Toronto's bread and butter. But if you're going to have some glitzy awards contenders opt out, you may have to expand your genre mandate so some other big titles can get in.

(Incidentally, among the directors premiering their new movies at Toronto — all dramedies of a sort — are Reitman with a movie called "Men, Women & Children," Baumbach with "While We're Young" and Shawn Levy with "This is Where I Leave You." Also among the global debuts are Rock's first directorial effort in seven years, a comedy, "Top Five," and Evans' first directorial effort, period, a drama, "Before We Go." It's a strong list; you can see some of the others here. But it's inevitably going to be lacking some name titles.)

Toronto has also had to contend with an ascendant New York Film Festival, which a few years ago began securing multiple world or North American premieres. This year is no different: among the movies making their world and North American debuts, respectively, are David Fincher's adaptation of the blockbuster thriller "Gone Girl" and Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu's "Birdman."

Interestingly, at least two high-profile movies, Jon Stewart's directorial debut "Rosewater," about an Iranian journalist, and the Benedict Cumberbatch code-breaking film "The Imitation Game," appear to be trying a third way in this Toronto-Telluride dilemma. They'll be Canadian premieres — in other words, they'll likely go to Telluride but still attend Toronto, premiering later in the festival. Bailey and Handling never said they wouldn't take a Telluride movie — they just said they wouldn't give it a prime slot.

Whether this new Toronto strategy will work remains to be seen. Judging by the rich slate, Bailey appears to have made the calculation — correctly — that, forced to choose, most studios would opt for Toronto, a big, glitzy media-heavy affair, rather than Telluride, a smaller, shorter and more low-key event.

But some apparently feel otherwise. And that could turn out to be a consequential decision. If a "Fury" or "Unbroken" goes to Telluride and breaks out, Telluride will have proved it has the clout that its bigger counterpart has long claimed. If it doesn't, Toronto may have just reasserted its strength. And the studios could feel the effect too. Being forced to choose one festival over another means the stakes are that much higher at a given festival. .

For many moviegoers, these can all seem like pretty abstract questions. But they can also be critical ones, with real impact. The right rollout can mean a movie catches momentum, does big business and sticks around a long time at your local theater. The wrong one means a good film can come and go before you even had a chance to read the review.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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