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TIFF 2020 Was a Slimmed-Down Success, Complete with Oscar Contenders and Solid Sales

People's Choice winner "Nomadland," "Ammonite," "Pieces of a Woman," "One Night in Miami," and "The Father" are among TIFF's Oscar contenders.

"One Night in Miami"

On one incredible night in 1964, four icons of sports, music, and activism gathered to celebrate one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. When underdog Cassius Clay, soon to be called Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), defeats heavy weight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall, Clay memorialized the event with three of his friends: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Based on the award-winning play of the same name by Kemp Powers, who also adapted it to screenplay, and directed by Regina King, her feature directorial debut, “One Night In Miami” is a fictional account inspired by the historic night these four formidable figures spent together. The film digs into the struggles they each faced and the vital role they played in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. More than 50 years later, their conversations on racial injustice, religion, and personal responsibility still resonate. This movie is a love letter to the Black man’s experience in America. It depicts these icons as men first, human beings, close friends who could be brutally honest with each other at a time of hard-fought change which still resonates today. Unfortunately, the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor imply that the struggle for racial equality continues. It’s an impressive debut for King.


The film industry needed TIFF to happen in this challenging pandemic year, and the Toronto International Film Festival obliged, despite logistical as well as financial hurdles. In March the festival let go all part-time staff and 30 full-time employees, with more layoffs to follow in June. But with support from the Canadian government’s subsidy program and some loyal sponsors, TIFF mounted a slimmer, hybrid 45th edition, September 10-20, which kicked off with Spike Lee’s ebullient David Byrne concert film “American Utopia” and wrapped Saturday night with a drive-in showing of Mira Nair’s “A Suitable Boy.”

TIFF also launched a sales market, screening an array of fiction and nonfiction titles to the press and industry online, and to the public in both indoor (limit 60 people) and more expansive outdoor venues in Toronto, and virtually across Canada.

“As we talked to industry and press and filmmakers and sponsors,” said TIFF co-head Joana Vicente, “people needed us to have this event. They wanted a platform for the films. They wanted some hope.”

The Oscar Race

The films in play and likely to pop up throughout the season include universally beloved road odyssey “Nomadland” (Searchlight), which scored the People’s Choice Award after winning Venice’s Golden Lion and is now the frontrunner in the 2021 Oscar race. And well ahead of the festival, TIFF co-heads Vicente and Cameron Bailey selected this year’s TIFF Tribute Awards, including “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao, Best Actress contender Kate Winslet, star of Francis Lee’s lesbian romance “Ammonite” (Neon), and Anthony Hopkins, whose moving performance in Florian Zeller’s stage-to screen drama “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics), a Sundance 2020 debut, puts him front and center in the Best Actor race. The TIFF Tribute Awards were broadcast across Canada on CTV and ctv.ca, and streamed internationally to the rest of the world by Variety.

Also building momentum was the harrowing grief drama “Pieces of a Woman” starring Venice Best Actress winner Vanessa Kirby, which was acquired by Netflix. Building steam in Toronto after its Venice debut was one of Amazon Studios’ biggest contenders of the year, Regina King’s feature directorial debut “One Night in Miami,” the first runner-up for the People’s Choice Award.

When most of these movies will actually open is another question. Expect these films to be a continued part of the chatter from now up until the Academy Awards ceremony. But given the delayed Oscars date of April 25, they have a long way to go.

Another Round

“Another Round”

Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

Films picking up buzz with recent acquisitions out of Toronto include Neon’s Ivory Coast Oscar submission “Night of the Kings,” which is in the running for the Best International Feature Oscar, along with Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s Cannes-would-have-been “Another Round” (Samuel Goldwyn Films), starring Mads Mikkelsen, assuming it is submitted. Still seeking distribution is “New Order,” Mexican Michel Franco’s vision of social chaos.

Several documentaries grabbed attention out of TIFF, including archive dive “MLK/FBI,” which sold to IFC Films and moves on to the New York Film Festival, and Hulu’s Greta Thunberg portrait “I Am Greta.”

While the festival co-heads were initially worried that the noise generated by the festival would be muted this year, the combination of live and virtual screenings generated buzz that was transmitted across social media, building anticipation for such popular titles as “One Night in Miami” — its Twitter conversation blew up with five million participants — and indigenous Canadian filmmaker Tracey Deer’s personal odyssey “Beans,” which might not have garnered as much attention in another year.

“Even if we didn’t get all the titles we wanted,” said Vicente, “we still put together an amazing selection and which gave us an opportunity to give prime slots to underrepresented voices.”

“76 Days”

The TIFF Market

TIFF’s industry platform welcomed 3,926 international professionals digitally this year. Early on, the TIFF team was hoping for a return to theaters in September, but it became clear in the summer that it was not going to happen. With security concerns in mind, TIFF negotiated with sellers for 48-hour windows on New Zealand screening platform Shift72 (also used by NYFF) for the market titles, some national, some international. Many were in the official selection, plus about 30 more.

“Every film was a snowflake,” said Vicente. “Every negotiation was different. We were constantly moving and adjusting.” The TIFF co-heads also shared information with other festivals, Telluride (which could not go forward), Venice, and New York. “We collaborated in a way we never have done before.”

Streamers dominated the big deals at Toronto. Netflix plunked down some $60 million for three films, “Malcolm & Marie,” “Pieces of a Woman,” and director Halle Berry’s “Bruised,” which screened as a work in progress, as she wanted more time to finish her edit, said Bailey. “She wanted to keep going.”

After a heated auction, Solstice Studios grabbed Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Mark Wahlberg-starring “Good Joe Bell” for $20 million for worldwide rights, announcing an awards campaign for its second major release. (Solstice pleased exhibitors with its early, modestly successful theatrical outing for Russell Crowe vehicle “Unhinged.”) The tearjerker is written by Oscar winners Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (“Brokeback Mountain”).

Also sold at TIFF were “Shadow In the Cloud” (Vertical Entertainment), “Shiva Baby” (Utopia), and “Summer of 85” (Music Box Films), with many other sales continuing to be negotiated for films in and out of selection. Films still on the hook for distribution out of TIFF and beyond, but earning raves, include the Wuhan coronavirus lockdown documentary “76 Days” and Idris Elba urban western “Concrete Cowboy,” which played at a downtown LA drive-in as well as a special Toronto screening for 500 invited frontline workers on Monday, September 14.

Looking at TIFF 2021, said Bailey, “Audiences are going to want something available at home from now on. We’re looking at all of that. We have no idea what the landscape will be next September.”

Ryan Lattanzio contributed reporting to this story. 

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