TORONTO’S FILM FESTIVAL IS A MAGNET FOR MOVIEMAKERS AND STARS
Brian D. JohnsonSeptember161991
REELS AND DEALS
TORONTO’S FILM FESTIVAL IS A MAGNET FOR MOVIEMAKERS AND STARS
Jodie Foster stepped from the limousine to the sidewalk—and into a blaze of lights and cameras. Wearing a simple black suit and a yellow scarf, she moved briskly through the photographers and fans crowded onto the sidewalk in front of Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. The event was Toronto’s annual film extravaganza, the Festival of Festivals. Foster had arrived for a gala showing of her new movie, Little Man Tate, the story of a seven-year-old child prodigy and his working-class mother. To thunderous applause at the end of the screening, an elated Foster stepped onstage and gave a bow. For the Oscar-winning actress, who started out as a child star, the movie is a milestone: it is the 26th film that she has acted in, but the first that
she has directed (page 48). Foster’s decision to unveil her movie at the Toronto festival—and the presence of other stars including Sean Penn, Lily Tomlin, Don Johnson and Sophia Loren—helped confirm its status as North America’s mecca of world cinema.
Film festivals are the international conventions of the movie industry. They attract stars, directors, distributors, agents, critics—and moviegoers ranging from black-tie socialites to film aficionados. Industry insiders consider the Toronto festival, running from Sept. 4 to 15 this year, to be the best on the continent. It is famous for the quantity and quality of its films—and of its parties. Said Thomas Bernard, a New York City-based vice-president of Orion Classics, an American distributor: “This
is the greatest festival in the world for seeing movies. I come here to look for films to buy, and to see the audience reaction to films that I own. The international press is flocking away from all the festivals in the United States. When they can get it all in Toronto, why go someplace else?”
Hype: The current lineup includes 289 films from 43 countries. Among the highlights is Cannes prize-winner Barton Fink, a gothic tale of writer’s block made by American brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Another Cannes awardwinner in the lineup, Danish film-maker Lars Von Trier’s Europa, is a surreal excursion though post-Nazi Germany. The festival is also showing the best of last week’s Venice Film Festival, including U.S. director Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams as a deranged derelict. The program also features an 18-film tribute to Mexican cinema. And this year, the festival took to the streets on its second night with an outdoor party and screening of Fritz Lang’s futurist classic, Metropolis, in front of Toronto’s city hall.
Visiting stars and big-name directors are essential to the festival’s appeal. “You want hype and glamor—every festival does, it’s part of the business,” said executive director Helga Stephenson. “When people think of movies, that’s a part of what they think of. It would be a big hole if it weren’t here.” But for festival fans, the real meat of the Toronto event lies in
discovering obscure gems and unknown talents. “When the audiences here find something done by a complete unknown that they like, they jump up and down and applaud it to the skies,” said Stephenson. “We don’t have a beach like Cannes, but the Toronto crowds have the ability and reputation of making hits.”
Past Toronto discoveries range from Diva (1981), a French thriller that had passed unnoticed in France, to Roger & Me (1989), a comedy about General Motors layoffs that became one of the most popular documentaries ever released. The festival has also launched a number of Oscar winners over the years, including My Left Foot (1989) and last year’s Reversal of Fortune. And it has helped introduce North American audiences to exotic fare from Asia, Latin America and the Soviet Union.
Rivalry: Cannes remains the world’s largest film festival. But it is essentially a trade show and competition, open only to critics and industry professionals. North America’s biggest festivals, in terms of attendance and the number of films, both take place in Canada: Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, which is mainly noncompetitive, and the annual Montreal World Film Festival, which judges films by jury. Both are public events, and ticket sales provide roughly one-third of their annual budgets of more than $3 million. Private sponsorship and government subsidies make up the rest.
For more than a decade, there has been a
heated rivalry between Toronto and Montreal, which compete for the best new films from around the world. But recently, Montreal’s status has been slipping. It is in poor financial health. And during its 15th anniversary last month, its lacklustre program became the target of widespread criticism, even from the traditionally loyal Montreal media.
The Toronto and Montreal festivals present a vivid contrast in styles. Serge Losique, a Napoleonic figure who shuns publicity, runs the Montreal festival like a private fiefdom. In Toronto, the vivacious Stephenson has been carrying on an extended honeymoon with filmmakers and the North American media ever since she became the festival’s executive director, with Piers Handling serving as deputy director, in 1987 (page 42).
Pride: Although both Toronto and Montreal launch new Canadian films, the Toronto festival has become the definitive showcase—there are 27 new dramatic features from Canada in the current lineup (page 44). And its organizers take pride in giving domestic movies a prominent place in the program. “It’s an unwritten policy that we try to open the festival with a Canadian film,” said Handling. “The festival is a multimillion-dollar publicity machine. And there’s a lot of fierce competition for that opening spot.”
The movie that opened the festival last week at the ornately restored Elgin Theatre was Black Robe, a $14-million production that is— by a long shot—the most expensive Canadian movie of the year. Directed by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford, who also made Driving Miss Daisy, winner of the Oscar for best picture in 1990, it is a vivid 17th-century costume epic about Jesuits and Indians.
Twelve years earlier, Black Robe’s co-producer Robert Lantos—now chairman of Alliance Communications, Canada’s largest film and TV production company—was sitting in the same theatre as co-producer of the movie that inaugurated the third Toronto festival on an infamous note. It was In Praise of Older Women, a sex comedy starring Tom Berenger and Karen Black. And the Ontario Censor Board had insisted that Lantos cut 30 seconds from an especially hot lovemaking scene. Controversy over the censorship order sparked public interest, especially when festival organizers and producers decided to show it uncut.
Former festival director Wayne Clarkson, who was a programmer at the time and is now executive producer at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies in Toronto, remembers a night of pandemonium. The 1,800-seat theatre was packed on the night of the opening. And hundreds of people with invitations were standing outside in the rain. “They were rioting to get in,” he said. “We had to call the police. There were corporate sponsors and government representatives standing out there with their noses pressed to the glass.” Added Clarkson: “Anyway, it was a huge kerfuffle, and the festival just took off. Every night, the theatres were full.”
The festival’s founders were promoters with Wild West flair: William Marshall, now a pro-
ducer, and Dusty Cohl, who launched his own annual “Floating Film Festival” last year on a Caribbean cruise ship. Clarkson, who took over as director in 1978 and ran the event for seven more years, consolidated its success, assembling a core staff of programmers who scoured the globe for undiscovered talent. In 1984, one programmer, Handling, mounted the first major retrospective of Canadian films—300 of them. Said Anne Mackenzie, the festival’s managing director under Clarkson: “It was the first time that the international press and film-makers took Canadian film seriously.”
Party: During the 1980s, the festival increased its glamor quotient, staging a series of splashy tributes to Hollywood luminaries. In 1982, it honored Martin Scorsese by flying in surprise guests including his parents, as well as Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel, the stars of Taxi Driver and other movies by the director. In 1984,
Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson—wearing a Cheshirecat grin and lime-green sunglasses—showed up to pay tribute to Warren Beatty.
By the time Clarkson left in 1985, the festival’s international profile was well established. Two years later, Handling and Stephenson, its former communications director, took over. Each year, they scout film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Havana, Hong Kong and other centres. They also sift through entries from film-makers vying to get their films into the festival. Stephenson says that she tries
to strike a balance between the commercial and the esoteric. But she adds that she does meddle with her programmers’ personal choices, which can be highly idiosyncratic.
The politics of selection can get sticky. This year, festival programmers rejected Chaindance, a movie about a convict and a cerebral
palsy victim who are literally chained together in a rehabilitation experiment. An intriguing hybrid of B-grade prison movie and well-acted character drama, it was shot in British Columbia by Montreal director Allan Goldstein, whose previous movie, The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick, was named best Canadian film at the 1988 Toronto festival. Chaindance was
accepted by the Montreal festival, where its star and executive producer, Michael Ironside, complained bitterly about Toronto’s decision. “They told me that it was too commercial,” he said.
For struggling film-makers, the festival offers access to distributors, agents and media from around the world. And the competition for the spotlight is getting fiercer every year. “We are being approached more and more,” said Handling.
At the Toronto festival, Hollywood luminaries rub shoulders with experimental artists whose work will never see the light of commercial release. At last week’s opening-night party, which took place under a big-top circus tent on Toronto’s waterfront, a Los Angeles director named Rico Martinez talked about his contribution to the festival: a $30,000 first feature titled Desperate. “It’s a semi-autobiographical dra§ matization of a semi-pathetic a life,” said Martinez, 27, a tat| tooed man wearing shorts, a knee pads and black bra, with S a heavy fake-gold dollar sign 1 around his neck. “I wear a ” suit to work,” he added, explaining that in his “straight life” he works as a post-production executive on movies-of-the-week at Universal Studios. Like Martinez, the Toronto festival has built a bridge between the Hollywood machine and the avant-garde. And in the middle lies a world of cinematic intrigue.
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