They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?

The Toronto Film Festival—Part III: The Imitation Game Jumps Out Ahead

By J. Don Birnam

September 22, 2014

It reads...Drink Your Ovaltine.

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After each screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the audience is given the option of depositing their ticket stubs into a box, indicating that they are voting for the highest honor conferred at TIFF - the People’s Choice Award (you can also vote online early and often).

Unlike festivals with award juries like Sundance and Cannes, TIFF prides itself in being the people’s festival, and the people’s choices come out on top. Students of the Oscars, not to speak of voting theories in political science, will tell you that populist coronations usually lead to a predictable result: unobjectionable candidates tend to emerge to the top. While TIFF doesn’t employ the preferential ballot, which rewards broad consensus even more than a straight-up majority vote, the fact that everyone and anyone that attends a screening can and does vote for the winner assuredly results in movies receiving prizes that would not necessarily do so if the award were selected by critics or other people in the film industry.

On top of all of this is the date change of the Oscars. Up until 2004, they were held in late March. Then, for various reasons mostly relating to ratings, the Academy moved the Oscar telecast up to late February. The implications of this change are momentous and cannot be overstated. The obvious implication is that it gives voters less chance to see all the nominated movies - this likely means that popular movies, i.e. well known quantities that have done well with either critics or audiences, will benefit. Voters won’t have time to see smaller, more obscure movies and push them across.




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More important for the purposes of today’s column is the fact that the date change made late summer/early fall festivals such as TIFF more relevant. The reason is simple: again, Oscar voters are humans with jobs and much to do. It is natural that, given less time to view all the potentially award-worthy movies, they will look for signals in the movie world for what’s good and what’s not.

So, let’s put two and two together. TIFF rewards popular, unobjectionable choices because the award is voted on by the broad audience. TIFF is more relevant to the Academy Awards because voters are looking for signals earlier than they used to be. All of this is a very long way of explaining that TIFF’s People’s Choice Award is a very strong indicator of where the Best Picture winds are blowing - at the very least when it comes to nominations.

Thus, since 2008, the following movies have won the highest prize at TIFF: Slumdog Millionaire (also won Best Picture); Precious (Best Picture nominee); The King’s Speech (also won Best Picture); Where Do We Go Now? (No significant Oscar noise); Silver Linings Playbook (Best Picture nominee); and 12 Years a Slave (also won Best Picture). That’s an impressive batting average.

This year, of course, the top prize went to The Imitation Game, the semi-biopic about Alan Turing - nominally exploring his sexuality but in reality mostly focused upon his quest to crack the German Enigma machine during World War II.

Before reviewing the film (which I will do with as few spoilers as possible, but be warned that general thematic spoilers will abound), let’s consider what this means for the Best Picture race.

Prior to TIFF, as I wrote, we had essentially one serious contender that had been seen and vetted, and that was Boyhood. Now we have another serious contender. Will it win? It’s impossible to say. The movie is, like Silver Lining Playbook, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire, completely unobjectionable. No one can seriously dislike it, it makes you feel good about humanity and yourself, it has flawed characters overcoming long odds, and you are rooting for essentially everyone in the movie to succeed. The formula is tried and true and has time and time again resulted in Best Picture wins.


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