Don't take this the wrong way, Toronto, but Hollywood loves you because you're easy. Perfectly timed, impeccably organized and unfailingly kind to all varieties of movies, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become the industry's hottest festival ticket by acting as a kind of supportive, low-maintenance girlfriend. Unlike its major festival sisters that sexy cougar Cannes, 60, and parka-clad hipster Sundance, 29 Toronto, 32, is inclusive, friendly and even prettier once you get to know her.
TIFF became one of the premier brands in show business thanks in large part to its early September date, which perfectly positions the festival as the opening bell for the Oscar season culminating in February. "Toronto is like the beginning of the school year," says Bingham Ray, president of distribution for Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which is bringing the Ryan Gosling film Lars and the Real Girl to Toronto this year. For the Hollywood press, Toronto is a 10-day feast of films, celebrities and buzz, enough to fill their bellies for the fall. "I have to go to Toronto because it defines the next six to eight months in movies," says Dave Poland, publisher of Movie City News, an industry news website that sees its heaviest traffic in Oscar prognosticating season. "It's the first opportunity to get wide-open access to all this stuff."
But Toronto has grown from its place as the most influential fall film festival to the most influential film festival, period, thanks to something rarer than its timing. Toronto boasts a festival oddity: "A semi-normal audience," says Picturehouse president Bob Berney, who is bringing The Orphanage, directed by Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro's protégé, Juan Antonio Bayona. Unlike Cannes and, increasingly, Sundance, Toronto saves lots of tickets for civilians, who buy the majority of the more than 300,000 tickets each year. And though hotel and restaurant prices have risen in recent years, you don't have to be on an expense account to go. With its "receptive, English-speaking audiences," Toronto offers "a more American-centric personality," says veteran publicist Tony Angelotti.
OK, so it's not your average North American moviegoer who will stand in line at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday for a Russian film starring nobody anybody has ever heard of, but civilian TIFFies are closer to regular audiences than, say, the scowling critics of Cannes or rude industry swag hogs of Sundance. Better yet, as far as movie distributors go, Torontonians seem predisposed to standing ovations, open weeping and laughter. It was the first two that tipped Berney off to the potential of Whale Rider when he attended Toronto for Newmarket in 2002. A movie about a 12-year-old Maori girl doesn't scream box-office gold, but after Toronto crowds leapt to their feet for the film, Newmarket bought it, and Whale Rider went on to earn a respectable $20 million at the U.S. box office as well as an Oscar nomination for its young star, Keisha Castle-Hughes. Even if a festival goer doesn't like a movie at Toronto, it's possible to leave politely, says Jeffrey Wells, who blogs about movies on Hollywood-Elsewhere.com. "When you leave at Cannes, the seats are made in such a way that there's kind of a bang sound. Bang! A person's going," Wells says. Thumbs down, in other words.
The audience's feeling about a film at Toronto can become infectious, creating a festival fever and inducing the captive Hollywood press corps to spread the word. "It's an amazing platform," says Ray. A star who works the Toronto party circuit, as Jamie Foxx did tirelessly in 2004 for Ray and as Penélope Cruz did last year for Volver, gets favorable media coverage simply by being available and photogenic. Even a screw-up, like the broken projector at last year's midnight Borat screening, can be a buzz-builder if the celeb plays it right. Sacha Baron Cohen, who had arrived at the screening in character on a woman-peasant-drawn carriage, recovered nicely when the film stopped just 10 minutes in; Cohen apologized and explained that the film reel was pieced together with the best Kazakhstani horse glue. The screening had to be rescheduled, but it did its job the Borat character had a memorable coming out documented in hundreds of media outlets.
Despite the crowds of industry, press and movie lovers who descend on it, Toronto manages to remain a working city during the festival. This is in stark contrast to the resort towns the other major festivals swallow whole. When festival goers bundle up to make their way down Main Street in Park City, Utah, during Sundance in January, they're not just protecting against the cold, but also against the teeming horde in search of a hot cup of coffee in one of Park City's crowded cafés. Toronto, with its easy public transportation, crisp weather and metropolis full of "semi-normal" people, retains its identity. "The tone is set by Canada," says Poland. "It's low-key."
Since Hollywood discovered its Oscar-minting potential in the 1990s, Toronto has grown in stature and glitz, but it hasn't forgotten where it comes from. This year, along with Reese Witherspoon's Rendition and Sean Penn's Into the Wild, the festival will also highlight hundreds of Canadian films and international offerings that will probably never see the inside of a multiplex. Unless, of course, Toronto's enthusiastic crowds tip Hollywood off to something it missed.