As TIFF tightens restrictions, why do world premieres matter so much?

By , on September 5, 2014

Jeff Bridges at the premiere of "The Men Who Stare at Goats" at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo by Josh Jensen / Flickr.
Jeff Bridges at the premiere of “The Men Who Stare at Goats” at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo by Josh Jensen / Flickr.

TORONTO—It almost seems inconceivable now, but 27 years ago the very first audience to witness Rob Reiner’s beloved swashbuckling fantasy “The Princess Bride” was in Toronto.

The same can be said of the 1994 prison epic “The Shawshank Redemption,” still the top-rated film of all time among IMDB users. “Crash” careened through Toronto first in 2004 en route to a best picture win, “Silver Linings Playbook” swanned its first dance here and Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 masterpiece “Boogie Nights” also unzipped in the Ontario capital.

The Toronto International Film Festival of course launched all those notable films, as it did “Rushmore,” “Almost Famous,” “Moneyball,” “Sideways,” “Ray,” and “The Big Chill.” But in recent years, TIFF has been getting scooped by emerging competing cinematic buffets, including Venice, New York and, perhaps most significantly, Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival.

Each of the past seven Oscar winners for best picture—”12 Years a Slave,” “Argo,” “The Artist,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “No Country for Old Men”—screened at TIFF, but they also screened somewhere else first.

While the Toronto fest was once viewed as relatively laid-back when it came to jockeying for premieres, it tightened the rules in January, specifying that all films screening in the fest’s first four days must be doing so for the very first time, at least in North America.

The festival’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, has resolutely insisted that the policy hasn’t influenced which films are selected, only when they’re scheduled. He says the new edict has been about providing clarity for industry and public alike.

But why so much focus on an issue—world premieredom—that ultimately becomes a piece of film trivia?

“The launch of a work of art, the first time it’s unveiled to to the public, is important for the artist,” Bailey said in a recent interview.

“The conditions of that, how that’s done, where it happens, who’s there, all of those things do matter.”

Since the announcement and subsequent rollout of the festival’s 2014 slate, whispers have echoed that the policy might have rankled distributors and filmmakers, leading to what some consider a weaker lineup than usual for the festival. Bailey firmly denies that’s the case, arguing that the industry has “responded really well to it.”

The festival has long operated with some measure of passive politeness even as it grew into a bona fide industry monolith—and some filmmakers aren’t surprised to see TIFF finally bare its teeth.

“That’s flexing your muscle and showing power and if I was them, I’d do the same thing,” said veteran director and overall provocateur John Waters in a recent interview.

“Cannes is more about selling the world rights and Sundance is about getting a distributor. To me, Toronto—and I’ve loved the festival every time I’ve been there—is about having a hit and prestige but at the same time not being in the art ghetto.

“It’s Oscar time!”

Indeed, TIFF’s proven reputation as an Academy Award kingmaker grants some degree of leverage over other festivals.

And yet, the downright unwieldy size of TIFF—which will screen 393 films this year—means that filmmakers trying to draw eyes (and potentially strike deals) with smaller movies might still prefer to roll out elsewhere.

“Every filmmaker has to figure out what path serves their film best,” said Mississauga, Ont., director Richie Mehta.

Mehta’s 2013 drama “Siddharth” debuted at Venice before arriving at TIFF. For the film’s U.S. premiere, Mehta opted for the South Asian International Film Festival in New York, a “small … local cultural” bash.

It was there that he landed an “amazing U.S. theatrical distribution deal,” and he’s skeptical such a coup could have been achieved if the film had been toiling in the bowels of a more sprawling lineup.

“I’m convinced that if we had premiered at a bigger U.S. festival, we wouldn’t have gotten that deal,” he said. “We would have been lost for sure.

“A world premiere at TIFF is a wonderful thing,” he added, “(but) if it doesn’t world premiere at TIFF and it’s somewhere else, maybe that’s exactly what your film needs.”

Industry aside, TIFF is always proudly trumpeted as the audience-friendly fest, a joyously inclusive celebration of cinema that thus stands in stark contrast to a comparatively inaccessible insider congregation such as Telluride.

And some are skeptical that general filmgoers are even aware of whether they’re witnessing a film’s inaugural screening.

“Who the (hell) goes to Telluride? Sixteen people?” spat New York cult director Abel Ferrara in a recent chat.

His Willem Dafoe-led biopic “Pasolini” will screen at Venice shortly before it whisks through TIFF, a distinction he argues is basically meaningless.

“They’re showing a week apart, five days apart. What difference does it make?” he said. “Is it a big deal if it’s in Telluride instead of Toronto? I mean, Telluride’s in the middle of nowhere. Who the (hell) even goes? I mean, I love that festival personally, but I like Toronto (too).”

And yet, Bailey insists that the premiere issue should not be dismissed as a piece of insider irrelevance.

In his mind, those intrepid filmgoers who brave long lines and steep prices do care whether or not each screening is a true cinematic event.

“Not all moviegoers pay attention to this but I think some do,” he said. “For some, in the same way as when an album drops or there’s a new single released, or when your favourite author has a new book out, you’re aware of that. You’re aware of that day or that week when it happens.

“For some people who follow movies, they follow when a film launches and that does make a difference. For some of them, it’s not all. But for some, that’s a moment of excitement. … You’re able to share that experience the first time it’s unveiled to the public and be in the room with the filmmaker and be in the room with the actors, that’s really exciting.

“That only happens once for a film. So I think there are some who do care about that.”

Director David Dobkin is one. His film, “The Judge,” will open this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, of course making its world premiere.

He said his film—which casts Robert Downey, Jr., as a slick lawyer who goes home to defend his estranged father from murder charges—was offered slots at “many other” festivals, but Dobkin chose Toronto.

And, just to be clear, “The Judge” won’t first be whisked on a European vacation to Venice or sneaked into Telluride for a hush-hush “preview.” He wants the world to know: the film’s premiere will be in Toronto.

“It’s like opening day for a sports team,” he said of being among the first to experience a film. “It’s not like … ‘we played yesterday as well at the stadium but today we’re calling the first day.’ It has to be the real thing.”

“Premieres used to be really important and you didn’t see your movie stars and the directors and producers on social media all the time,” added Dobkin, the director of “Wedding Crashers.” “It was your choice to glimpse them having a night out (and) celebrating their work.

“That kind of has gotten walked on just by the volume of media and celebrity and all the other stuff that goes on now. So I think it’s really important to find a way to recreate what a world premiere used to be.”

With files from Canadian Press reporters Victoria Ahearn, Andrea Baillie and Laura Kane in Toronto.