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Sam Mendes Gets TIFF Ebert Director Award as ‘Empire of Light’ Heads for Oscar Season

Mendes follows in the Toronto Film Festival footsteps of directors like Martin Scorsese, Claire Denis, Ava DuVernay, Wim Wenders, and the late Agnès Varda.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 12: Sam Mendes accepts the award for Best Direction of a Play for "The Lehman Trilogy" onstage at the 75th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Sam Mendes at the 2022 Tony Awards

Getty Images for Tony Awards Pro

Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes has been named the recipient of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Ebert Director Award. The “1917” and “American Beauty” filmmaker will be honored for his life’s work, but especially for his upcoming film “Empire of Light,” which makes its Canadian premiere at the festival. For this prestigious TIFF honor, Sam Mendes follows in the footsteps of past recipients like Martin Scorsese, Claire Denis, Ava DuVernay, Wim Wenders, and the late Agnès Varda. Mendes will be honored during a TIFF fundraising gala at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel on September 11.

Mendes cut his teeth as a filmmaker at TIFF in 1999 with the world premiere of the iconic suburban satire “American Beauty,” which won the TIFF People’s Choice Award. That’s often a bellwether for the Best Picture Academy Award, which “American Beauty” went on to win in early 2000.

“From his first appearance at TIFF with ‘American Beauty,’ director Sam Mendes brought his exacting and lyrical vision of cinema to Toronto,” said TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey along with the announcement. “We are delighted to honor his unique voice and body of work with this year’s TIFF Ebert Director Award.”

“Empire of Light” is Mendes’ first film since “1917” earned him Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations in 2020. He took a break from filmmaking to return to his theater roots with the 2021 Broadway run of the play “The Lehman Trilogy,” which earned multiple Tony Awards earlier this year — including for Mendes’ direction.

“Empire of Light” is headed straight for Oscar season with a release from Searchlight Pictures on December 9 following its festival run. (A confirmed Canadian premiere at TIFF means it’s bound for a world or at least North American premiere at Telluride in Colorado the prior weekend. “Empire of Light” isn’t in the Venice Film Festival lineup.)

Plot details for the film, set in an English seaside town in the early 1980s, remain scarce. Shot by Mendes’ Oscar-winning DP Roger Deakins, “Empire of Light” is billed as a poignant ode to the magic of cinema. (It’s rumored to be a much more intense experience than that vague logline promises.) The cast includes Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth.

Toronto previously announced that the cast of “My Policeman” would receive the festival’s other tribute award revealed so far.

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