They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
The Toronto Film Festival Part I
By J. Don Birnam
September 16, 2014
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), notable for its prescient North American premiere of movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, and Argo, as per the consensus, had a down year. Foxcatcher (which made its North American debut last month at Telluride) predictably wowed audiences, and The Imitation Game (to be covered in a later column) won a deserving Audience’s Choice Award (the highest award bestowed at TIFF). But there have been few revelations this year that have the city or the movie community truly abuzz, and few unexpected surprises, like Jennifer Aniston’s critical acclaim for her work in the indie drama Cake (still without a distributor as of this writing).
But, certainly, mum is the word when it comes to the Best Picture race, as the world premieres of movies like The Judge (Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall) and Shelter (actor Paul Bettany’s first turn as a director) have done nothing to move the needle in either direction, and the audience award winner seems somewhat tepid coming out of Toronto compared to past winners like 12 Years A Slave.
None of this, of course, is necessarily the fault of the festival’s selection committee. More likely it is a testament to the sad state of cinema in North America today that vehicles by lauded actors like Adrien Brody (American Heist, below) and Robert Duvall (The Judge), or acclaimed directors like Jason Reitman (Men Women and Children, for our next column), get icy receptions.
But, unsolicited advice to the TIFF planners: perhaps the weakness this year is also the inevitable result of trying to set yourself up for Oscar. It happened to the studios: time and time again studios try to replicate - mostly with disastrous results - the success of a particular movie with the Academy Awards. Long forgotten movies like Pay It Forward, Australia, and Amelia are but three names that come to mind as movies that were clearly groomed for Oscar glory and turned into epic financial disasters.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the same fate would befall the film festivals if they tried to chase Oscar. So Toronto has to ponder the fact that as the popularity of their fête has grown, they've become more savvy at pre-selecting movies that would eventually become popular with those 6,000 old rascals in the Academy. The temptation to ride that wave could become too strong to ignore - even as the consequences for the festival would be unexpected and unwelcome.
Listen, I don’t work at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I do not know for a fact that they are trying to preselect Oscar movies. But how about this: 1) The three main North American festivals, Telluride, Toronto, and New York, are openly competing for dates and big name movie premieres; and 2) in promoting their Audience Choice Awards, TIFF promoters use The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire as examples of why people should vote and specifically state on their website that individual votes are important because past TIFF winners include “10 Best Picture, Foreign Language, or Documentary Winners at the Academy Awards.” This all betrays the ugly truth that, wring their hands as they may about the Academy Awards, people across the movie world (or, at the very least, across North America) know quite well that Oscar popularity is still significant, artistically and financially. The Oscars are still relevant, and they will be as long as we pander to them.