The Toronto International Film Festival is often seen as a launchpad for major Oscar contenders, but when “Moonlight” premiered there in the fall of 2016, few deemed it a frontrunner for best picture. That was partly because the movie premiered in TIFF’s Platform section. The two-year-old, tightly-curated selection of a dozen auteur-driven works was designed to highlight a range of international filmmakers, which strikes a sharp contrast to the flashy gala premieres; it’s also the festival’s sole juried competition section.
But those prestige factors ultimately helped “Moonlight” stand out in the crowded fall season, and as Platform enters its third year, the movie’s track record has inevitably raised expectations for its potential.
However, even as the section’s third edition features a range of promising films, artistic director Cameron Bailey emphasized that anyone searching for the next “Moonlight” was looking at it the wrong way. “The section isn’t designed for awards season, but to look beyond it,” he said in an interview. “What are the films that show real director voices? So we decided, instead of getting swayed by the success of ‘Moonlight’ and hunting for the next one, we wanted to keep our eyes on the most exciting voices.”
While the section was originally conceived as a showcase for filmmakers at early stages of their careers, it has since cast a broader net. This year’s lineup includes a range of international directors, many of whom have been on the map for decades, even as they remain selective. These include Armando Ianucci, the British satirist and “Veep” creator who has directed his first feature since the vulgar 2009 Oscar-nominated “In the Loop.”
With “The Death of Stalin,” which opens the 2017 Platform section, Ianucci adapts Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel about Soviet Union in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. “We were impressed by how Ianucci could translate this political satire into so many different registers,” Bailey said. “He can jump back to the Soviet Union era with the same sensibility you see in ‘In the Loop’ and ‘Veep.'”
Another familiar name in the section is Mike White, best known for writing collaborations with Jack Black and Miguel Arteta, whose “Brad’s Status” features Ben Stiller as a parent who takes his teenage son to visit colleges and winds up in an awkward confrontation with some of the characters from his youth. White, whose other 2017 credits include the screenplay for “Beatriz at Dinner,” has also worked extensively in television — a range that echoes Ianucci’s path. “This may be the new norm with auteurs,” Bailey said. “They’re as comfortable with TV as they are with film or web series or whatever.” He added that “Brad’s Status” was “really the inner voice of Mike White, and Stiller can really play these independently-minded characters.”
Both “The Death of Stalin” and “Brad’s Status” enter TIFF with U.S. distribution deals in place — from IFC Films and Amazon Studios with Annapurna Pictures, respectively — and in that regard, they’re in the minority of the Platform section, as the other 10 films are acquisitions titles. That aspect is more in line with the original goal of the section, which was envisioned as exclusively featuring movies without distribution. “We’re trying to make these films real discoveries for people,” Bailey said.
To that end, the section’s track record stretches beyond “Moonlight,” which entered TIFF on a trail of buzz from Telluride and already had distribution lined up with A24. In Platform’s first year, the Danish war movie “Land of Mine” was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, which ultimately landed it an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film; last fall, the taut period drama “Lady Macbeth” was a major breakout that was picked up by Roadside Attractions and recently hit theaters. “Jackie” closed its deal with Fox Searchlight shortly after its rapturous Platform premiere, while Ben Wheatley’s chaotic J.G. Ballard adaptation “High Rise” was met with a memorably divisive reaction that helped raise its profile and eventually find a home with Magnolia Pictures.
That history has impacted the way filmmakers and sales agents have viewed the section’s identity, which stands out in a notoriously dense lineup of over 200 features from around the world.
“There are now people coming specifically for Platform because it’s the only section they’re interested in,” Bailey said. “They want to be in competition. They know the movies that were here. They want to be in that company.” All of the Platform films are eligible for a $25,000 prize from a jury that this year includes Wim Wenders. The 12 slots for the section mean that every movie submitted faces tough competition and added scrutiny if it makes the cut, which has been a disincentive for some. “There are some filmmakers and companies that are very wary of being in a competitive environment in the festival,” Bailey said. “They’re concerned about the risk. The good news is that I think we’ve had enough successes in the first two years to prove it’s worth it.”
Some of the potential discoveries in this year’s lineup include “If You Saw His Heart,” the debut feature from Joan Chemla, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a man who drifts into a life of crime after his close friend’s death. The movie, which was workshopped in TIFF’s Talent Lab several years ago, was inspired by Guillermo Rosales’ novel “Halfway House.” Chemla, said Bailey, “is someone who will have a long career as somebody who makes personal films. There’s an individual stamp here.”
Other notable filmmakers at a critical stages of their directing careers include Clio Barnard, best known for her experimental documentary “The Arbor” and the Cannes-premiering coming-of-age drama “The Selfish Giant,” who hasn’t made a movie since 2013. Her new movie, “Dark River,” involves the efforts of a young woman (Ruth Wilson) attempting to reclaim her family property after her father’s death. “She’s definitely one of those filmmakers on her way up,” Bailey said.
The section closes with “Sweet Country,” the first traditional narrative feature from Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton since 2009’s “Sampson and Delilah.” The Australian drama takes the form of a western set in the Northern Territory frontier. “The fundamental conflict between Europeans and indigenous people is really brought to the fore here,” Bailey said. “The visual language is very familiar — it looks like a John Ford film, and there’s a trial that happens that feels like a classic midcentury Western trope. He’s very familiar with the history and vocabulary of the western.”
Of course, buyers and awards season pundits will be on the lookout for a “Moonlight” breakout, whether TIFF wants that pressure or not. “Everybody’s looking for a repeated pattern,” Bailey said. “If a film comes out of nowhere and wins best picture, everyone wants that. In my experience, things don’t usually work that way. I hope the films aren’t overly burdened by that this time. But I also hope that it showed people what’s really possible.”
However, the biggest challenge for Platform goes beyond the pressure on its lineup and involves a criticism leveled at the festival as a whole year after year — that it’s simply too big and unwieldy for journalists and industry players to take it all in. Last fall, a missive from Variety’s Peter Debruge targeted the size of the festival, which stimulated a decision to scale back the programming by 20 percent. More recently, an editorial by Deadline’s Michael Cieply in which he explained his rationale for not attending this year hit a skeptical note: “Can a vast festival with hundreds of entries and nearly half a million attendees hold its own in an awards game that has shifted from the large, audience-friendly movies that do well in Toronto, toward the smaller, more specialized films that may have an easier time in the salon-like venues of Telluride or the critic-rich environment of New York?”
Bailey’s not immune to those criticisms, but he’s used to addressing them. “Look, our festival is bigger than any one person can fully take in,” he said. “You can’t see every film in the festival so you have to make choices. Don’t assume you can eat the whole buffet. It’s not a wise thing to try to do.”
Beyond that, he expressed a desire for Platform to provide an antidote to anyone overwhelmed by the TIFF program. “You can make smart choices,” he said. “One of the main reasons we started Platform was because we wanted to draw attention to the kind of filmmaking closest to our hearts. If you watch all 12 films in Platform, we won’t steer you wrong — and you’ll get the sense of the soul of the festival.”