When the Toronto International Film Festival revealed the first batch of selections for its 2014 gathering last week, the announcement reflected a significant shift.
For the first time, the festival was distinguishing between films that had decided to forgo the Telluride Film Festival that immediately precedes it and those that hadn’t. Those movies that had opted to debut at the Colorado confab would be given a slot after Toronto’s critical first weekend. Those that had held off to make their North American premiere at Toronto? They’d be eligible to premiere in that Thursday-Sunday period.
The move has all sorts of implications, not just on the respective gatherings -- the two most influential confabs of the long Oscar season that follows -- but on the films themselves. The policy could change what studios choose to play and what attention their films will receive when they do--in turn affecting media reaction and even awards and commercial prospects.
Toronto artistic director Cameron Bailey says that the reasons for and consequences of the change are more complicated than some accounts have portrayed. On Friday, he chatted with The Times about the motivations for the shift and what he thinks it portends for Toronto and the larger film world.
The Times: Telluride has been screening high-profile North American and world premieres for a number of years. What changed this year?
Cameron Bailey: For a long time, it was fine. There had always been agreement that these [Telluride] screenings were sneak-peek screenings that happened before the actual premiere. But the Internet and the blogosphere has changed, and the films started being reported on very differently. There’s a rush to judgment to get opinions out there that you didn’t have before. The intimate atmosphere that used to happen with a sneak preview has been replaced by a hothouse atmosphere. People handicap awards chances as the final credits are rolling. That changed for other festivals, and it changed for us.
So what did you then decide? What’s your goal, basically, with the new policy?
What we said was we wanted to make sure that films that were launching at Toronto got what they wanted out of it, which is mainly about our audience. There has to be some additional value for a film that’s making itself available to the public for the first time, so if they are world premieres we can offer a slot in the first few days. The goal is that if we were announcing films as world premieres there wasn’t an asterisk beside them. But we also want to make sure we have room for films that are going elsewhere.
There’s a feeling in some quarters that this policy essentially forces films to choose between Telluride and Toronto, that there’s a penalty of sorts if they choose Telluride. Do you see it that way?
Well, first, a lot of European festivals [Cannes, among others] take a more absolute approach that if the film plays anywhere outside your home country, you’re not eligible to play anywhere in the main section, and we haven’t done that. We decided to come up with something a little more measured, a little more nuanced. But I don’t think it’s actually penalizing the films. That was a little alarming to me. People said, “Won’t this be hard on the filmmakers?” And I don’t think it’s quite the high-stakes conflict people make it out to be. Films will go to one festival or the other for different reasons. And if they go to another North American festival first, they can still come to us, just in a different place.
That different place, the Monday-Friday period, is historically a much mellower time for Toronto--in part because a lot of people who come in from out of town, from the media or the industry, tend not to stay for much of that week. Could that affect how these films screen?
I don’t think the midweek will be so mellow anymore. There are very significant films this year launching Monday and Tuesday; there are big names through Friday. And that’s a response to something else too, the complaints we’ve been hearing that if you’re working the festival, you need to do too much in the first four days. So now there will be more reason to stay longer, and there will be more of a sane schedule over the whole course of the festival.
What did studios say to this? They’ve been able to have it both ways, in a sense, getting the low-key word-of-mouth buzz that comes from Telluride and the splashy media attention that comes from a lot of your premieres.
The first thing was “we’re expecting your call.” No one was surprised. Everyone realized the landscape’s shifted. Things changed for them and changed for us. They got that. Then they wanted to make sure their films [that went to Telluride] were protected and still got treated with the same respect and honor they would in previous years. And that’s our concern too. Our main concern is that no matter what premiere status a film has, that it delivers the best public launch possible.
Because you’re inevitably going to lose some movies that will go to Telluride and won’t want to play after the weekend, have you broadened your parameters for what kind of film you’ll allow in to maintain the overall number of premieres? When the slate came out, I was surprised to see a film like “The Equalizer,” a big commercial production directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington, that doesn’t seem like a prototypical Toronto selection.
As far as I know no one has actually said, “We’ll take the film to another North American festival and not bring it to Toronto.” But on the crowd-pleasing side, I don’t think it’s broader or more commercial this year. We’ve had the same diverse mix of films we’ve always had, from the art-house film to the straight-up crowd-pleaser. Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington brought “Training Day” here, and that on paper might have looked like a straight-up commercial action movie and it turned out to be something else.
You also have a fair number of foreign films world-premiering this year.
Yes, I thought some of the coverage missed that. There are so many great foreign filmmakers premiering films here. There are new films from Francois Ozon, from Susanne Bier, from Christian Petzold. We’ll have the diverse mix of films we’ve always had.
How much have you spoken to Telluride organizers about the changes?
We talk to them a lot. We’ll meet up at Cannes or another festival for lunch or a drink because we’re in the same business. We don’t tend to talk about specific films. But we talk about changes in policy. They turned 40 last year and we turn 40 next year. There are inevitable shifts and we talk about them.
If you had to sum up what you were looking for with the policy this year, what would it be? Is this a trial run or something more permanent, and how will you know if you’ve succeeded?
The plan was to start the new policy not just as a pilot. There has been a substantial shift in the landscape and we’re responding to that shift. Of course we look at everything to see if we can revise or adjust it. We’ll see how the audience responds and also look at the response of all the people in the media and the industry who cover it as professionals. We’ll hopefully get a clear message from them and then see how it looks and sounds and feels, and then see where we are.