TIFF flashback: Oscars have looked to Toronto International Film Festival for decades

As the Venice International Film Festival is winding down, the Toronto International Film festival kicks off Sept. 10 and continues through Sept. 19 in a COVID-19 hybrid version with physical screenings and drive-in, digital screenings and virtual red carpets. Whereas Venice is the oldest film festival having begun in 1932, Toronto is relatively new. In fact, it wasn’t even called the Toronto International Film Festival until 1994.

The festival was the brainchild of founders Bill Marshall, Dusty Cohl and Henk Van Der Kolk who launched the inaugural Festival of Festivals in 1976. The mandate was to feature the best pics from other film festivals and to attract major Hollywood productions by being one of the most hospitable movie celebrations.

The first edition of the festival didn’t set the world on fire. Guests Jack Nicholson and Julie Christie never made it. The festival had hoped to open with Hal Ashby’s biopic on Woody Guthrie, “Bound for Glory,” but the studio, United Artists, pulled the film. So, opening night pic was the sexy romantic French comedy “Cousin, Cousine,” which was nominated for three Oscars including best foreign language film and best actress for Marie-Christine Barrault. The biggest splash was made by the premiere of Barbara Kopple’s documentary, “Harlan County, U.S.A,” which went on to win the Academy award.

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The festival also changed the course of feature films such as Jean-Jacques Beineix’s ultra-cool 1981 French thriller “Diva.” It had languished at the European box office when it was initially released. But “Diva” became an international art house sensation when audiences and critics fell under its spell at the festival. Hollywood began to take notice of the festival with Roger Ebert/Gene Siskel-curated tributes to Martin Scorsese (1982) and Robert Duvall (1983).

TIFF has become one of the bellwethers for the Oscars. Though there are juried awards, it’s the People’s Choice Award, given to the most popular movie at the festival as voted on by festival goers, which has become the most important. Claudia Weill’s “Girlfriend” with Melanie Mayron was the first winner in 1978 with Ira Wohl’s documentary, “Best Boy,” taking home the honor in 1979. “Best Boy” went on to the win the Academy Award for feature documentary.

The importance of the award really took flight in 1981 when the People’s Choice winner went to “Chariots of Fire,” which won four Oscars including Best Picture. Other winners that were awarded Oscars including 1985’s “The Official Story” (foreign language film); 1995’s “Antonia”  (foreign language film); 1999’s “American Beauty: (five Oscars including film, director and actor); 2000’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (four Oscars including foreign film); 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine” (documentary winner); 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” (three Oscars including director); 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (eight Oscars including film and director); 2010’s “The King’s Speech” (four Oscars including film, director and actor) ; 2011’s “A Separation” (foreign language winner);’ 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” (three Oscars including film); 2015’s “Spotlight” (two Oscars including film); 2016’s “La La Land” (six Oscars including director and actress); 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (best actress and supporting actor); 2018’s “Green Book (three Oscars including film and supporting actor); and 2019’s “Jojo Rabbit” (Oscar for adapted screenplay).

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The festival hasn’t been immune to controversy. In 1978 the opening night film, “In Praise of Older Women,” had been ordered by the Ontario Censor Board to lose 30-seconds of a love scene.  The young festival played up the censorship issue causing the premiere to be oversold with a riot nearly breaking out of those who were unable to get tickets. The producer, natch, screened the uncensored version.

In 2004 came “Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat,” a documentary about three Toronto men who tortured and killed a cat as an art project. The film wasn’t the cat’s meow to animal activists who loudly protested that they wanted the film pulled. It wasn’t. So, they picketed the screenings. Things got so bad that the film’s programmer received death threats.

And in 2016, Peter Debruge of Variety disparaged the weighty size of the festival: “TIFF has become a dumping ground serving up hundreds of new movies with hardly any discernible sense of curation. Artistic director Cameron Bailey seems to accept virtually any film with a couple of starring names in the cast-provided that they agree to walk the red carpet, of course.”

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