A Look Back at Toronto 2003 as Fest Closes with Canadians in the Spotlight
by Eugene Hernandez
Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi" won the AGF People's Choice Award and two Canadian documentary films nabbed slots as the first and second runners-up in audience voting at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, while another Canadian film nabbed honors in the important Discovery section. Festival director Piers Handling announced the award winners at Sunday's annual brunch at the Four Seasons here in Toronto as the 28th festival came to a close.
"Zatoichi," which won Kitano the top directing award in Venice last weekend, was acquired by Miramax here at the festival. Ron Mann's doc which follows actor Woody Harrelson on an organic living tour, "Go Further," was the first runner-up, while Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's "The Corporation," a critical look at the dominant institution named in the title, was the second runner-up. Both films have yet to secure distribution deals, but each filmmaker separately told indieWIRE about their ongoing discussions with a number of potential buyers.
"Wow," exclaimed Toronto filmmaker Aaron Woodley simply, upon receiving the festival's Discovery Award. Selected by the accredited press corps, the prize was presented to the filmmaker for his debut feature film, "Rhinoceros Eyes." The movie, a U.S. production from a Canadian filmmaker, stars Michael Pitt and Gale Harold. Madstone produced the film through its directors program.
A standing ovation greeted Canadian Denys Arcand when he was named winner of the Toronto-City Award for best Canadian feature film. His Cannes award-winner "Les Invasions Barbares" (Barbarian Invasions) opened the Toronto International Film Festival on September 4th. "This is the greatest," he exclaimed, beaming as he accepted his $30,000 cash prize.
The $15,000 cash Citytv award for best Canadian first feature went to local filmmaker Sudz Sutherland for his movie, "Love, Sex & Eating the Bones." Saying that he'd like to quote fellow Canadian filmmaker Woodley, with a "Wow," Sutherland smiled broadly on stage. "It's a dream," the former Toronto International Film Festival volunteer said. The director indicated that THINKFilm is intending to release his movie in Canada in February, while plans for a U.S. release have yet to be determined.
Constant Mentzas from Montreal won the award for best Canadian short film, nabbing a $10,000 cash prize for his film, "Aspiration." The festival's FIPRESCI prize, awarded by a jury of film critics, went to Spanish director Achero Manas "Noviembre" (November).
On stage during the final public event of the festival, Piers Handling sported a Roots T-shirt that proclaimed his enthusiasm for the city of Toronto. In the variation on the popular "I Love New York" campaign, the shirt featured a big red maple leaf in place of the heart icon. Handling reflected on the numerous obstacles that threatened this year's festival, from the recent SARS crisis, to the blackout that struck in the final weeks of festival planning.
In his remarks, Handling spoke of "The absolute importance of arts and culture for this community," saying that this was "perhaps the most successful edition" of the festival. But with characteristic modesty, he added, "I'll let you be the judge."
Many in the film industry agreed that this year's festival was a hit. "It was great to hear from so many locals in Toronto that the festival and its visitors had really re-energized the city after a tough summer," Newmarket president Bob Berney told indieWIRE.
"In what could be classified as a 'thin' year for buyers," Samuel Goldwyn Films' VP of acquisitions Tom Quinn told indieWIRE, "Toronto managed to beat the odds yet again, delivering a program that satisfied every agenda: showcasing the usual auteur suspects, discovering new talent, serving up quality buys in a festival that's more of a market than stand-alone markets, and providing a great launch for films the world over." The exec acquired Margarethe von Trotta's German film "Rosenstrasse" near the end of the event.
Dylan Leiner, SVP of acquisitions at Sony Pictures Classics praised Toronto's "eclectic, rich selection," saying that the festival exceeded his expectations. Sony Classics, which brought a dozen movies to this year's fest, acquired three films this year in Toronto, nabbing Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring," Ferzan Ozpetek's "Facing Window," and the company is planning to announce today a deal for Mario Van Peebles' "How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass," about the director's filmmaker father Melvin Van Peebles.
"We've probably never seen so many interesting films as (we have) this year," Zeitgeist's Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo told indieWIRE in a statement this weekend, "It was a challenge to cover it all." No doubt referencing last week's IFC deal for Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World," as well as distributor interest in "The Corporation," both by filmmakers that Zeigeist has worked closely with in the past, the duo added that this was "a great year to discover new talent and that was fortuitous since all the talents that we had previously 'discovered' seemed to be moving on to bigger companies."
"I was a little disappointed that there weren't as many really great new films at Toronto as in the past," countered Wellspring's head of acquisitions Marie Therese Guirgis, "Especially after an underwhelming Cannes I was hoping to see several incredibly strong films. I saw only 2 or 3 films that I really liked, and no 'masterpiece.'" She did add, however, that given the large lineup in Toronto, good films could sometimes slip by.
Other deals concluded at this year's Toronto International Film Festival included United Artists' acquisition of Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes."
"Though there was no breakaway hit acquisition title this year, there were many films picked up," summarized Newmarket's Berney, "Indicating the various distributors are in need of product and ready to make deals." Last year, Berney scored what would turn out to be the deal of the festival, acquiring the festival award-winner "Whale Rider" from the Discovery section. This year he nabbed Anders Thomas Jensen's Danish film, "The Green Butchers"
"With a refreshing amount of modesty," Samuel Goldwyn's Tom Quinn concluded, "Toronto does it all, and does it consistently well year in and year out."
While by all accounts press and industry screenings ran without a hitch this year, perhaps the key aspect that this increasingly important film festival has yet to get totally right is its core venue locations. Press offices moved once again in 2003, this time to the more remote Delta Chelsea hotel, with mixed results. Publicists and talent remained anchored at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor St, many blocks north of the press centre, with no shuttle available for attendees. The Rogers Industry Centre remained at the Sutton Place, while some buyers expressed a hope that the Centre would be located in a centralized space with the press headquarters next year.
Venue locations will change permanently if plans fall into place the way organizers anticipate. The Toronto International Film Festival Group (TIFFG) is moving forward on a major new project, dubbed Festival Centre that will create a permanent home for the annual event in Toronto's downtown entertainment district. It will be a complex that will host year-round programming and the film festival. Organizers hope to open the Centre in 2006. The organization projects annual audiences (including all of its yearly programming) to rise from the current 500,000 to 2 million. Programming will increase to 4,000 film events each year from the current 1,500, while the Festival Centre itself will provide the group with over 150,000 sq. ft. of space, an increase from the 70,000 sq. ft. of space it currently utilizes.
TIFFG has $18.55 million CAD in commitments and has plans for a campaign to raise $120 million for the project. Toronto-based architectural firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB) has been selected to design the complex, which will be located on the northwest corner of King and John Streets and will consist of Festival Centre and Festival Tower, a residential condominium. Designs for the project were unveiled in Toronto last week. Festival Centre will consist of a total of 1,300 total cinema seats with three dedicated year-round cinemas and an additional two flexible screening spaces. In addition to the annual TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival Group organizes Cinematheque Ontario, the annual Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children, and Film Circuit.
"The festival seemed more electric than in recent years," explained Shinan Govani, the scene columnist who was writing must-read party coverage for the local National Post newspaper. He reflected on the festival on the final day of the event. "Toronto had a pretty rough go this past summer, so partly the city was absolutely juiced about the festival this year. More than ever," Govani told indieWIRE. His favorite party, of the nearly 40 that he attended, was the IFC soiree at Babalu on Monday night. The star-studded event featured the cast of John Sayles' "Casa de los Babys," with Marcia Gay Harden and Lily Taylor cutting up a rug on the dance floor and Rita Moreno on stage with the band.
Considering the ongoing question about the festival's ability to balance its program of high-profile Hollywood films with its acclaimed lineup of international cinema, Govani joined the dialogue. "I think the debate about whether the festival is 'too Hollywood' or not is a moot one, largely," Govani said."
"My feeling is that it's sort of like an all-you-can-eat-buffet," said Govani, "If you want to just go see suicidal, Icelandic films, you can. If you want to see an all-Chloe Sevigny line-up of films, you can. If you want to do just the Galas, you can. There's so much variety and breadth, that you can self-design your own festival and, if that includes de-Hollywooding it for you, then, sure!"
[Brian Brooks contributed to this report.]