When the Toronto International Film Festival was launched under another name in 1976, cynics predicted the demise of the Festival of Festivals within a year or two. Cynics be damned. With the 38th edition set to open on Thursday, TIFF remains triumphant and is currently ranked number two among all film festivals throughout the world.
That puts it second only to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France. Heady stuff when you consider what co-founders Dusty Cohl, Bill Marshall and Henk van der Kolk were up against in 1976 -- and it was not just cynicism. It was Toronto's dubious record as a dull cultural backwater, especially in the film arts. The Hog Town nickname was not just about pig farms and slaughter houses. It was about provincialism and small-minded, 'roll-up-the-sidewalks' thinking.
Things have obviously changed. And those changes in Canada's largest city are a boon to movie fans across Canada, as well as in the U.S. The 10 days that TIFF operates -- with other film-related activities throughout the year -- have become critical as an access route for films from Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. If you want to make it big, or get in at all into North American markets, you have to come through TIFF.
Even with quality American movies -- the serious ones Hollywood makes both for box office and Oscar honours -- their awards campaigns are launched in Toronto, not at Sundance, Telluride or even New York. The Oscar buzz really started in 1999 with American Beauty, an arthouse film that went on to significant box office and the best picture Oscar. But only after debuting in Toronto.
More recently, according to director Danny Boyle, the success of Slumdog Millionaire is entirely due to breakout screenings in Toronto. Prior to the filmfest, Boyle was resigned to releasing Slumdog directly to DVD. After Toronto audiences went nuts with enthusiasm and voted the off-beat movie as best-of-the-fest, Slumdog earned its distribution, boxoffice and Oscars. None of that would have been possible without TIFF. "I owe it all to Toronto," Boyle once told me.
So it is not just a matter of screening the film. Responses are measured. Films with no theatrical distributor are bought and sold. For the business side of cinema, Toronto has one of the biggest marketplaces outside of Cannes.
For the public, the star power is significant. This year could be a vintage one for the quality of the films and for the star power. Projects starring George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Garner, Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Radcliffe (in three separate titles!), Benedict Cumberbatch (also in three!), Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Zac Efron, Idris Elba, Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Gordon Pinsent, Chris Hemsworth, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Marion Cotillard, Kurt Russell, Emma Thompson, Pierce Brosnan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jason Bateman, Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Judi Dench, the late James Gandolfini and dozens of other name actors are on the schedule.
The Oscar buzz for Prisoners, Gravity, Labor Day, Rush, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, Dallas Buyers Club and Blue is the Warmest Color has already begun. For the next 10 days, TIFF will be electric with the excitement of discovery.