So far, so good for Precious as the Toronto People’s Choice award continues the film’s positioning on the road to theatres - and awards.
Although the Toronto International Film Festival doesn’t have a competition section along the lines of Berlin, Cannes or Venice, it does offer one award which has grown in stature over the last 10 years. The People’s Choice prize, selected by famously enthusiastic Toronto audiences, has developed into an uncannily precise predictor of commercial and awards success, from Shine in 1996, Life Is Beautiful in 1997 and American Beauty in 1999 to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Amelie (2001), Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
If it sounds obvious, it isn’t. Audiences at Tiff have some 300 films from which to choose, so the winner of the People’s Choice award has provoked a response in this upscale cinephile city that can’t be ignored.
Which brings me to this year’s winner Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire, the extraordinary second feature from Lee Daniels which first caused a stir at Sundance, winning both jury and audience awards when it was still called Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire.
One US contact of mine opined this week that Precious will win the best picture Oscar, like Tiff winner Slumdog last year. Judging by the media blitz surrounding the film in Toronto where Daniels was accompanied by high-profile executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, the film is certainly playing all its cards right on the way to the Kodak.
But what makes Precious’ success to date so exciting is that it shows how a small, uncompromising independent film with social value as well as artistic merit can build into a fully fledged phenomenon with the right positioning.
Granted, it doesn’t actually hit theatres in the US until November 9 but Lionsgate, which bought it after Sundance in the fiercest bidding war of the year, has worked with Daniels, a renowned producer and entrepreneur as well as director, to create maximum impact.
Precious is still an extremely tough film, a violent and often shocking story of an obese African American teenage girl’s struggles with mental and sexual abuse. Sapphire’s 1996 novel was inspired by harrowing true stories she witnessed as a teacher and written in a unique first-person dialect, giving the literal voice of the illiterate Precious centre stage. It has been compared to Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple for its groundbreaking insight into some of the sad realities of the African American experience.
But unlike Steven Spielberg’s anodyne film of The Colour Purple, Precious is made by an African American film-maker with an unflinching veracity that grabs anyone who sees it by the throat.
Having won over the mainly white Utah audiences at Sundance to the cinesnobs of Cannes, where it played in Un Certain Regard, and now the mainly white crowds of Toronto, Precious is that rare African American story which speaks to black and white audiences alike.
Daniels and Lionsgate enlisted Winfrey and Perry for the power of their names. Winfrey has promoted the film for months now on her daytime talk show - a touchstone for both black and white women in the domestic market.
Perry’s endorsement will help it tap into the powerful black cinema-going demographic. As Lionsgate slowly builds the film from limited release, it should become one of those event films that audiences across the board feel they have to see.
International buyers had a similarly emotional response at Sundance and Berlin, where sales agent Elephant Eye held a market screening. Icon bought UK and Australia, ARP France and Filmax Spain. Even the Middle East sold straight away to Front Row. For an African American subject in this climate of extreme buying caution, the volume and quality of deals sealed were remarkable.
Precious could indeed go all the way but the fact remains that it started out as a privately financed underdog from Daniels whose one previous film as director (Shadowboxer) had been slated by critics. It may have lost its underdog credentials the moment media titan Winfrey joined its executive team, but it’s already the year’s biggest indie success story.