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TIFF 2020: Fewer Oscar Movies and Gala Premieres Means Docs and Discoveries Could Stand Out

The festival lineup may be difficult to parse, with a mishmash of discoveries and a few higher-profile titles, but that's a microcosm of the industry in 2020.

Atmosphere during the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, tiff, at King Street in Toronto, Canada, on 05 September 2019. | usage worldwide Photo by: Hubert Boesl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Atmosphere during the 44th Toronto International Film Festival

Hubert Boesl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

At just 50 films, the 2020 pandemic version of the Toronto International Film Festival is dramatically smaller than previous editions, but its very existence is something of a victory. In a year that found major festivals such as SXSW, Cannes and Telluride unable to go on, TIFF has charted a path forward despite a funding deficit and missing studio entries that are either unfinished or not ready for primetime.

By the standards of a 44-year-old festival that has long prided itself on the intimidating scope of its selection, the lineup may look like a mishmash of international films that happened to be available and willing to subject themselves to an unpredictable market. Most audiences who aren’t already in Toronto will experience the selection online. But all of that is a microcosm of industry’s shifts in 2020.

Yet TIFF co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente were adamant about the caliber of the final selection given the limitations at their disposal. The program is comprised of 46 percent women directors, up from 36 percent last year, and more films looking for distribution.

“I don’t think anything is missing here,” said Vicente, also the festival’s executive director. “We’re pleased the lineup will allow audiences and journalists to pay more attention to each film. With a more compact list, we hope everybody finds films they love.”

That means the festival showcasing more discovery titles, giving buyers and local audiences (who will choose among safe drive-in, outdoor screenings and indoor options), and online attendees the chance to sample the films. Out-of-towners are not welcome, the festival emphasized.

Talent, even locals in Toronto, will not be walking the red carpet, instead participating in virtual Q&As and press interviews. “The border is closed through the end of August,” said Vicente. “We’re asking people to enjoy the experience on our digital platform.” Public screenings will be geo-blocked and only available to audiences in the Toronto area, but press and industry will have access beyond that. The festival plans to announce more specific details in the next two weeks.

While an online experience might in some cases mean a wider array of participants, TIFF is actually taking a more exclusive approach to its accreditation process this year. “We actually need to accept fewer people,” Vicente said. “We have less films, less inventory, so need to make sure we’re operating with the same numbers we’d have in the real world.”

Two years after the festival first announced its pledge to increase the diversity of its media presence by 20 percent, that decision may sound like a setback, but Vicente insisted the accreditation process would still favor a wide array of backgrounds. The media inclusion initiative will continue with an eye towards the same percentage breakdown despite the overall smaller list of press. The festival expects to accredit 30 new media participants from diverse backgrounds and 500 accredited media overall. “It’s about quality this year,” Vicente said. “We want to make they get a great experience.”

But who will actually attend the festival? The festival heads were coy. “Virtually, everyone,” Vicente said and laughed. Bailey, the festival’s artistic director, was more specific. “Given the border restrictions and the virus seeing an upswing in some areas of the world,” he said, “we really want to make sure audiences get to be in the presence of the people who made the films. But it will be on a screen at a drive-in or online in a Q&A situation. We’re not expecting talent to travel to Toronto.”

In another change, the tighter list meant fewer documentaries. Programmer Thom Powers would happily have selected more, but had to settle for 11 slots, less than half his usual number, including opening night, Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s stage show “American Utopia” (HBO), which reflects on race and representation in America, shot by cinematographer Ellen Kuras. (Look for many TIFF leftovers to show up at Powers’ next fest, DOC NYC in November.)

"American Utopia"

“American Utopia”

HBO

The high-profile titles are specialty films likely heading for the two-month delayed Oscar race, such as Chloe Zhao’s American road movie “Nomadland,” starring Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (presented by Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York), as well as Francis Lee’s Cannes selection “Ammonite” (Neon), starring Oscar-winner Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a gay romance. “It’s by far the best performance I’ve seen [Winslet] do,” said Bailey.

Mads Mikkelsen stars in another Cannes selection and possible Denmark Oscar entry “Another Round,” directed by his “The Hunt” director Thomas Vinterberg. And two Sundance dramas are in the TIFF lineup, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman two-hander “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics) and sales title “Falling,” directed by and starring Viggo Mortensen.

Two other actors are directing their first features, which are also for sale. Oscar-winner Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” depicts a 1964 meeting between pals Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X. And Oscar-winner Halle Berry stars in “Bruised” as an MMA fighter trying to get back into the winner’s circle while mothering a six-year-old son.

Of some 15 American titles, proportionally more are for sale than usual, including Ricky Staub’s “Concrete Cowboy” (Endeavor) starring Idris Elba, which was originally in talks to premiere back at Sundance in January but needed more time in post-production. There’s also Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó’s grief drama “Pieces of a Woman” (Cinetic), starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, and Sarah Snook. It’s the filmmaker’s first English-language production following his Cannes-winning “White God” and competition entry “Jupiter’s Moon.”

"Ammonite"

“Ammonite”

See-Saw Films

In another notable shift from previous years, the selection has absorbed many titles already singled out by other festivals, rather than competing with them. TIFF has engaged in ongoing discussions with fellow fall gatherings NYFF, Venice, and the now-canceled Telluride. And while Venice chose not to include the films singled in the Cannes 2020 selection announced by that canceled film event, TIFF has programmed a number of them. After years of chasing world premieres, on this one count, the festival heads sounded relieved.

“We don’t care!” Bailey said with a laugh. They didn’t keep track of which films had already been selected by other festivals. “These films need all the love and attention they can get,” added Vicente.

Nevertheless, it will take time for audience and critics to process the selection in part because the announcements features a long list of titles with no clear distinctions between the different sections that usually make TIFF easier to parse: Those interested in splashy red carpet events usually look to Gala premieres, while cinephiles tend to delight at the Discovery, Platform, and experimental Wavelength sections, among others. Bailey said that when the schedule appears online, those distinctions will come back. “We will tag them so you know where they would’ve landed in a normal year,” he said.

At the same time, the absence of more prominent sections means that other kinds of titles could have an easier time getting noticed. Among these, Bailey singled out “The Disciple,” Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane’s follow-up to “The Court,” which is executive-produced by Alfonso Cuaron and also playing Venice. In an ordinary year, it might be the ideal Platform breakout. “Critics will pick it out of lineup,” said Bailey. “It’s announcing a new voice in world cinema.”

Bailey also singled out two films from women filmmakers in Iran, Farnoosh Samadi’s “180 Degree Rule,” and Manijeh Hekmat’s road movie “Bandor Band,” which Bailey described as “an almost Jarmusch-esque road movie.” He was also high on Suzanne Lindon’s coming of age drama “Spring Blossoms,” one of the Cannes 2020 titles, which showcases “a really strong, very talented young filmmaker,” Bailey said of the drama that deals with a young woman coming of age through a relationship with an older man. “The film is directed with real precision.” Meanwhile, Tracey Deer’s Canadian drama, “Beans” “is set in the watershed of indigenous relations in the 1990s, during the Oka crisis standoff in Quebec.”

On the lighter side is Canadian Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby,” which was not able to play SXSW during the lockdown. “The sharp acerbic comedy set at a shiva is hilarious,” said Bailey, who also recommended Cathy Brady’s Irish film “Wildfire.”

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo by Joshua Richardson. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Nomadland”

Joshua Richardson

Arguably, this year’s hit sales titles will include a number of documentaries. Culled from a long list of possibilities, the films were selected in consultation with the main festival programmers. While Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer’s meteor encounter documentary “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” has been picked up by Apple, and 90-year-old Frederick Wiseman usually self-distributes his movies — “City Hall” spends four-and-a half hours in Boston — sales titles include “Enemies of the State” (Submarine), Mayye Zayed’s Egyptian weight-lifting story “Lift Like a Girl,”  and transgender saga “No Ordinary Man,” which uses  jazz musician Billy Tipton as a way into the story of trans people today. “Tipton was operating at a time when there was little understanding of his way life,” said Powers. Bailey called the film “one of the best trans films I have ever seen.”

However, the most timely entry may be “76 Days” (CAA), set in Wuhan China as frontline health workers struggle to contain the coronavirus during a lockdown that began on January 23 and ended 76 days later. “It’s urgent, powerful filmmaking,” said Bailey. “You feel like you are there in those rooms as coronavirus is breaking out and nobody knows what’s going on.”

Editor-turned-director Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI” (Cinetic), collaborating with Martin Luther King biographer David Garrow, assembles hundreds of hours of newly disclosed 1960s archive footage of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI surveillance and harassment of the civil rights leader, as they tried to made to break King down. “It will be even more potent in this year of Blacks Lives Matter,” said Bailey.

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

Apple

For “Notturno” (Submarine), Gianfranco Rossi’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated “Fire at Sea,” the filmmaker spent several months immersing himself in a region that had been occupied by Isis, along the borders of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. “He has this ability to make these quiet, beautiful observations inside a community,” said Powers.

TIFF’s own community has faced many of the same hardships facing film organizations across North America. Earlier this summer, TIFF laid off 17 percent of its workforce, and the future of the TIFF Bell Lightbox remains uncertain. But the festival has been able to sustain its usual support system. “Obviously, we’re facing a big deficit this year, but we’re getting the support from members and donors and partners,” Vicente said. “We feel this is what we have to do. It’s important not just for us, but for the industry and the ecosystem as a whole.”

TIFF runs September 10 – 19, 2020.

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