Why TIFF matters, and 4 other things to know about the Toronto International Film Festival

Every fall, right after Labor Day, one of the biggest events on the movie calendar gets underway: the Toronto International Film Festival, which most people call by its acronym, TIFF.

Since it launched in 1976, the 10-day event has become one of the largest and most prestigious in the world, propelling emerging filmmakers onto the international scene and awards hopefuls toward the big fall movie season. But there’s plenty about it that an average movie fan might not know. So as the 2019 edition of the festival kicks off on September 5, here’s some of the biggest questions about TIFF — and some answers.

Why does TIFF matter?

For your average moviegoer, there’s one big reason: The 10-day festival is the unofficial kick-off to the “prestige movie season” — which means that keeping an eye on what’s buzzy at TIFF may tell you a lot about what performances and movies will be part of awards chatter later in the year.

The festival’s timing — right after Labor Day — positions it as the de facto opening of awards season, a marathon of mostly serious dramas that lasts about six months, from September through February, until the Oscars finally wrap it all up. (In 2020, the Oscars take place on February 9.)


the red carpet of the world premeire of the movie Green Book at the Toronto International Film Festival

Octavia Spencer on the red carpet for the world premiere of Green Book, which she produced and which eventually won Best Picture at the Oscars.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

But is TIFF really as important a film festival as, say, Cannes, which happens in late May? That depends on who you ask. Cannes is the reigning title holder of cinema’s “most prestigious festival,” and most filmmakers aspire to have their work play in competition there someday. (Cannes also has more than 30 years of existence on TIFF.)

But Cannes films often skew toward more rarefied and international films. In contrast, at Toronto — which programs many more movies — you can find bigger crowd pleasers that might also make more money at the box office and wind up bigger awards-season contenders. (A Star Is Born, Green Book, I, Tonya, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Silver Linings Playbook, for instance, all premiered at TIFF.)

For people who love movies, or who follow awards keenly, that’s what makes TIFF interesting. Just because a film doesn’t play at TIFF doesn’t mean it won’t win Hollywood honors. (2014 Best Picture winner Birdman, for instance, didn’t make an appearance in Toronto.) But Cannes winners are rarely Oscar winners, while TIFF sets the pace for awards chatter.

Filmmakers and critics also really like TIFF. Toronto sustains a vibrant film culture (partly thanks to the year-round programming that has sprung up around TIFF), which means the hundreds of thousands of attendees at the festival are frequently film-literate and excited to see the wide variety of movies in the lineup, not just to spot stars. Publicists for movies like this too, because it’s good for creating buzz among the kind of people who really care about movies.

And movie stars and directors reportedly like the festival’s relatively low-key vibe; though awards are given out to some films, the festival generally feels less overtly competitive than something like Cannes, Berlin, or Sundance. (It’s also quite a bit cheaper to enter and attend than any European festival.) After all, everyone’s thinking about how the big movies will fare in the big awards — and those are still six months away.

Who goes to TIFF?

Unlike at Cannes, which is only open to about 30,000 accredited film industry professionals, the general public can buy tickets to TIFF — and boy, do they ever. An estimated 280,000 attendees show up, several thousand of whom are in the industry (which includes filmmakers, distributors, publicists, and journalists).


George Clooney greets fans at the 2017 TIFF premiere of Suburbicon.
Walter McBride/FilmMagic

That is huge. Sundance, by contrast, drew 122,313 attendees in 2019. This year’s Berlin Film Festival, generally considered the world’s largest public festival, ended with 487,504 theater visits — with many attendees going to more than one screening — including from members of the ticket-buying public as well as about 20,000 film industry professionals in attendance, who carry badges instead of buying tickets. So TIFF is one of the world’s most well-attended festivals — likely in part because of the reasonable cost of staying in Toronto and the favorable early autumn weather.

The fact that so many members of the public attend TIFF bodes well for the movies there. If buzz builds around a TIFF movie, it’s not just because of the critics who are writing about it — hundreds of thousands of movie lovers may also be talking about the film in restaurants, bars, and cafes, and posting about it on social media. That means the barometer for a film’s popularity can be spread out more broadly — and filmmakers have the chance to gauge how the public, in addition to critics, will react when their film hits theaters later on.

What kind of movies play at TIFF?

In 2018, 254 feature films screened at TIFF, picked by the festival’s well-respected programming staff. For context, Sundance screened 121 features earlier in January 2019; the number of movies in the main competition and Un Certain Regard program at Cannes in May was only 39, though many more played in parallel sections held alongside the official festival.

Those films are programmed by the festival’s staff in 14 sections, each of which has its own goals and flavor. Some of those include:

  • Gala Presentations — films with a high profile and stars on the red carpet
  • Special Presentations — other high-profile films, and sometimes world premieres
  • Discovery — directors’ first or second feature film
  • Midnight Madness — genre films (mostly horror and thrillers) that open at midnight and play again the following day
  • Masters — movies made by the world’s most influential “art-house” filmmakers
  • Contemporary World Cinema — movies by international directors who are established, but not household names
  • Platform — a competition section for narrative and documentary features that have not yet been acquired for distribution in North America. An international jury chooses a winner, which receives $25,000 CAD.

There are sections for short films, classics, TV episodes, documentaries, movies aimed at kids and teenagers, and experimental films as well.


2018 Toronto International Film Festival - “A Star Is Born” Premiere - Arrivals

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper on the red carpet for the A Star Is Born premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage

That is a lot of movies, and obviously, it’s physically impossible for even the most sleepless of moviegoers to see more than a fraction of them. (I can typically cover about four per day; more ambitious and/or masochistic critics might be able to squeeze in six, which means that over the full 10-day run, a busy critic could see 40 to 60. Non-critic festivalgoers see far fewer.)

In 2017, TIFF actually elected to cut its slate by 20 percent, partly by eliminating two of its programs. The festival had come under some fire for being too big and unwieldy for industry players to see all the major films, which can end up hurting those that are worthy of buzz but get lost in the sheer volume of also-worthy films. For subsequent festivals, the number of films programmed has remained about the same.

Some festivals are very prize-focused — think Cannes’ Palme d’Or, or the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival — but Toronto is generally less focused on festival-specific awards than on generating buzz. Still, one TIFF honor that augurs well for the recipient’s Oscar chances is the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, which filmgoers vote on. Some of the recent winners, like Green Book, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The King’s Speech, La La Land, Room, and 12 Years a Slave, have gone on to clean up at year-end awards.

Oscar Tallies for Festival Prize Winners, 2000 to 2018

Untitled

Award Type Berlinale Golden Bear Cannes Palme d’Or TIFF People’s Choice Award
Award Type Berlinale Golden Bear Cannes Palme d’Or TIFF People’s Choice Award
Best Picture Nominations 0 3 10
Best Foreign Film Nominations 3 4 2
All Oscar Nominations 9 19 92
Best Picture Wins 0 1 4
Best Foreign Film Wins 1 1 1
All Oscar Wins 2 4 30

Data from IMDB.com

And this makes perfect sense. TIFF is a festival for the public, first and foremost. Its biggest focus is on films that will catch the eye of both critics and moviegoers — crowdpleasers with awards potential, which often play well with Oscar voters later on. So naturally, the award the ticket-holding public votes on — rather than a small number of famous people picked to sit on a jury — is the most important award of the festival.

Where does TIFF land in the hierarchy of film festivals around the world?

There’s a clear tiered system of film festivals around the world. When TIFF started in 1976, its goal was to collect the best movies from those festivals and show them to eager Torontonians. In fact, back then, it was called the “Toronto Festival of Festivals.”

But along the way, Toronto has picked up steam, rocketing itself up the ladder to join the world’s premiere festivals, which includes prestigious fests like Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Venice, and the New York Film Festival. These festivals gain their prestige mainly by being the first stop for buzzy movies aimed at garnering the year’s big awards. Festivals that premiere less highly anticipated films — or that mainly show films that have premiered elsewhere — are still often fantastic experiences for attendees and press, but don’t have quite the prestige of the top tier. Seattle, San Francisco, SXSW, and the Tribeca Film Festival all fall into this category.

TIFF entered the top tier partly by beginning to premiere major films, or by giving them their first major public screening. A festival like Telluride might premiere a film like Lady Bird, but though Telluride is extremely prestigious, it’s also small and too expensive for many media outlets to attend. And while Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and eventual Best Picture winner The Shape of Water had their world premieres at the Venice Film Festival in 2017, TIFF was their North American premiere. So most critics and many audience members got their first looks at those eventual Oscar front-runners in Toronto a week or two later.


2017 Toronto International Film Festival - ‘Chappaquiddick’ Premiere - Red Carpet

Kate Mara takes a selfie with fans at the Chappaquiddick premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

TIFF’s timing also helps elevate its status. Because it’s positioned just after Labor Day weekend, with the summer movie season having officially ended, many movie studios and filmmakers find that publicity at TIFF helps raise awareness of their film in the minds of critics and awards voters, as well as for audiences, who will get to see many of the films in the months to come.

This can backfire, of course. One notable recent case was Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which debuted to ecstatic audiences at Sundance way back in January 2016 and was expected to repeat that performance at both TIFF and in its subsequent theatrical release. But in the meantime, the story of a 1999 sexual assault charge and Parker’s botched handling of the publicity around it wound up sinking the film’s chances both with audiences and with awards. It opened to controversy and muted box office.

But while critics and festival faithfuls quibble over which festival is most prestigious or has the best films, TIFF is generally counted among the world’s top festivals, and getting your film into the festival is a great career step for any filmmaker.

Is there anything particularly Canadian about TIFF?

Ask the regulars, and they’ll nod vigorously and start talking about poutine and Tim Horton’s.

But just as Sundance has a distinctly Utahn, snow-booted flavor and Cannes — with its insistence on rigid hierarchies, high heels, and booing crowds — is tres French, TIFF is noticeably Canadian, and the most prestigious film festival held in the country. Its programmers devote a solid slice of its selection slots to an ever-diversifying group of Canadian filmmakers.

That also means that there’s controversy about what distinctly Canadian films can and should look like, and what sort of issues they should confront. In January 2017, TIFF’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey wrote an editorial in the Globe & Mail calling the focus of Canadian films into question:

But could it be that our cinema’s personal fictions, with their private hurts and secret pleasures, shut out too much of the world? Could the impulse to cocoon inside one’s own story be the same centripetal force pulling us away from the necessary chaos of other people?

So, what if we doubled down on truth? What if our filmmakers, along with our film schools, funders, distributors, festivals and critics, turned to face the roiling reality that defines Canada today? What if we stopped pretending that Canada is safe, nice and boring enough to leave off the big screen, while we focus on personal fictions? Instead, we could rip the lid off and reveal very Canadian acts of deceit, murder, betrayal and corruption that happen every day across this great country.

The editorial sparked a conversation among the community of Canadian filmmakers and film professionals, and in response, TIFF programmed a diverse slate of Canadian cinema beginning in 2017.

I remember seeing people tweeting about an escalator at TIFF. What’s that all about?

Let’s just start out by acknowledging that sleep-deprived film critics tend to get a little cranky and punch-drunk (and maybe hungover) a few days into festivals, after sitting through four, five, or even six movies a day, then rushing back to coffeeshops and hotel bars to crank out reviews and coverage and maybe down a drink (or three) before crawling into bed for a few hours and doing it all over again.

But even by those standards, the Great Escalator Catastrophe of 2016 dominated critics’ Twitter feeds during that year’s TIFF, and it’s become something of a festival meme in subsequent years. In short, here’s what happened.

Most press and industry screenings at TIFF happen on the second floor of Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre, which ordinarily has an escalator that keeps patrons from having to climb the 75 steps of this staircase:

But in 2016, the “up” escalator was broken on the first day of the festival, and remained broken till day four, leading to snark and despair among critics and a surprising number of articles about the outage. (An elevator was made available, but was hardly a viable method of transportation given the number of people who needed to reach the theater.)

The escalators were in better working order in following years, though they broke down a few times. But new attendees who ask veteran TIFF attendees for advice about the festival often find that preparing oneself for broken escalators comes with the territory. Every year, the escalators’ working condition is among the most hotly discussed topics at the festival. And you can be sure that if they’re broken, you’ll hear about it.