By Indiewire | Indiewire September 4, 2003 at 2:00AM
Nipping at Cannes' Heels, Toronto's Star Shines Even Brighter On Opening Day of Festival
by Eugene Hernandez
Indeed it is too soon to call the Toronto International Film Festival the most important film festival in the world, but after what was considered a weak Festival de Cannes, hopes are quite high for this year's Toronto festival. And over the last few years the event has emerged as a worthy rival to that famous festival in France. Now, with Oscar season kicking off earlier than ever, an array of stars arriving in town, and a number of anticipated premieres from established and emerging filmmakers, it's safe to say that Toronto's festival is opening today with perhaps more going for it than ever before.
"Toronto is now positioned as the major fall fest of the year, and Cannes is the major spring festival of the year," festival director Piers Handling told Variety this week.
Few would argue with Handling. Backing up his claim is a lineup that boasts 184 features that are world, international or North American premieres -- thats 75% of the lineup. A total of 339 films will screen over the next ten days, 254 of those movies are features and 85 are shorts. In fact, many in the film business have forsaken the Venice Film Festival, which is currently underway in Italy, in favor of a trip to Toronto.
"There is no better place to launch a film," Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard told indieWIRE. His company will unveil a dozen new movies at this festival, testing the waters with the friendly local audiences and refining their slate after they take stock of reactions from ticket-buyers, film critics, festival programmers and exhibitors. And with the Oscars happening a month earlier, in late February, awards season is kicking off in earnest here in Canada.
"Its become a more important launching pad for the Oscars," explained Bernard, who has been a fan of this fest since his first trip here in 1978. "Toronto is the biggest profile that an Oscar qualifier can get right now." Ever critical of Sundance where he will launch films in January, Bernard calls this the most important film festival in North America.
Savvy publicists from both coasts have set up offices in the Intercontinental Hotel again this year (even though the festival has moved its offices and media desk to the Delta Chelsea Hotel downtown) to lure the hundreds of accredited reporters and critics to the many competing screenings that will unspool at 21 theaters this year.
"From a publicity standpoint, Toronto is an amazing festival because, just like in New York, there are four daily newspapers and those four daily newspapers love the festival," veteran publicist Jeremy Walker told indieWIRE on the eve of the event. "They devote a huge amount of space to the festival." Those papers can drive the attention of moviegoers, and more importantly put a film on the radar of important editors and writers from key press outlets.
"Just as the Toronto Film Festival is a really diverse film festival," Walker continued, "The Toronto newspapers are really inclusive and reflect the diversity of the festival. You can go to Toronto with a really unique film and get a lot of coverage."
Foreign language films will no doubt be among those films in the media spotlight with 145 of the feature films on tap being screened in a language other than English. That's 58% of the lineup. 55 countries are represented at the festival.
Marie Therese Guirgis, head of acquisitions at Wellspring, agrees that this is a key fest, both for launching films and for finding new ones. Her company, which handles many foreign-language titles, will unveil the latest films from Bruno Dumont and Jafar Panahi, while at the same time she and acquisitions staffer Rob Williams are looking to make some deals. Guirgis told indieWIRE that she'll be pursuing the typically strong lineup of French films in this festival.
From a business point of view, the festival here in Toronto is an important companion to the fest in Cannes, according to Guirgis. "The most important films that aren't in Cannes, are in Toronto," she said. Having seen a number of anticipated films in Cannes and Ediburgh though, Guirgis added that the real finds here in Toronto are likely to come from up-and-coming talents. Programmers have welcomed 66 features from first time filmmakers.
Audiences in Toronto, some of whom are legendarily known for taking their vacations during the festival, are not frightened off by films with no stars, or those from emerging directors. In fact, according to publicist Jeremy Walker, they relish the chance to celebrate unknown movies.
"They are enthusiastic moviegoers who want to be challenged by something new, who want to be the first people to see a movie," Walker told indieWIRE.
Anyone who needs further proof only need consider the film that audiences selected as their favorite last year. Crowds cheered for Niki Caro's "Whale Rider," a film that came into the festival with no buzz whatsoever. It went on to win audience awards at major festivals around the world and has earned nearly $17 million this summer in the U.S. alone.
[indieWIRE editors are traveling to Canada today and will be covering the Toronto International Film Festival daily.]