Toronto changes its Telluride policy on world premieres, in a smart move that reflects the digital age we live in.
The third wave of programming announced today by Toronto’s movers and shakers contains a sack-load of anticipated world premieres for the likes of Kristen Wiig comedy Welcome To Me, Thomas McCarthy’s The Cobbler starring Adam Sandler and Henry Hobson’s zombie drama Maggie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin.
There are plenty more to choose from, as you will see from our news stories announcing the latest additions to the programme. This is to be expected from a festival of Toronto’s global standing and its sheer size. However this year there is a dramatic change of policy.
While it’s too soon to say which movies will pop and which will fall to the wayside like 2013 opening night selection The Fifth Estate, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) artistic director Cameron Bailey assures us that now, when a movie is categorised as a world premiere, it will be exactly that.
In previous festival editions this had not always been the case. By the time certain world premieres arrived in Canada they had already received an unofficial first screening at Telluride, the rarified Colorado event that takes place in the Rockies roughly one week before Toronto.
Over the years this has given Toronto and Venice programming dilemmas and bruised egos. At one point I thought Telluride was purely about welcoming cinephiles and fostering a relaxed environment in which to enjoy movies. If that were the case, the conceptual solution (logistics is another matter) might be for Telluride to move its dates to some time after Toronto.
But it’s not so simple. Telluride is very much about celebrating cinema in an intimate setting, but the cachet of world premieres must be a factor in the thinking of executive director Julie Huntsinger and her team. Every festival has the right and the need to deliver them and over four decades Telluride has earned this as much as anybody.
Filmmakers love the event because they get to watch movies and share time with aficionados in an intimate setting. Distributors and awards campaigners swear by it because they can get the buzz ball rolling on one or two contenders away from the distraction of a massive public festival.
Last year Gravity, Prisoners and the eventual best picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave played in Telluride before Toronto. In recent years The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Argo and Black Swan all received the same treatment. However while this invariably benefits the movies in question, it takes the wind out of the sails of Venice and Toronto.
Venice head Alberto Barbera spoke out about this last year and said he would insist on true exclusivity for world premieres on the Lido. After years of barely stifling their indignation, TIFF took action at the start of 2014 and Bailey delivered a similar ultimatum to distributors.
From now on, he said, they would lose the coveted first-weekend slot if their movie world premieres at Telluride. Bold move – and the right one. Toronto has as much right as anyone to attract world premieres and the leadership has taken umbrage at the hubris shown by distributors who launch a title in Colorado, fully aware that a ‘world premiere’ berth awaits them north of the border one week later.
“We’ve got a lot of films in our festival and the premiere is so important to our filmmakers we had to ensure these films have the position in the festival they deserve, so that means everything in the first four days will be at least a North American premiere,” Bailey told me last week.
The knock-on effect appears to be that buyers and decision-makers who do not travel to Telluride may extend their stay in Canada as movie premieres get pushed into the second week. Bailey predicts this will happen.
There is another factor at play. The changing face of media is partly responsible for the rapid anointment of movies in Telluride (or anywhere, frankly). In this regard I and other journalists must occasionally hold up our hands. The digital age and in particular social media have enabled a breathless, often sloppy blog culture that accords far too much prominence to the knee-jerk response and makes potent tastemakers of us all.
Here’s Bailey again: “There’s a sense that journalists have to get an opinion out right away. As the credits are rolling you can see faces light up as social media kicks in. We used to have a stable film ecosystem of Venice, Telluride and Toronto where films could launch and people wouldn’t start to talk about the Oscar process.
“Last year there were tweets and posts analysing the Oscar chances of films before September and a lot of this is now coming out of awards-based media that’s going anywhere they can smell a contender.”
Instant judgment can be a huge disservice to filmmakers, not to mention an insult to real critics who bring to bear knowledge, perspective and measured appraisal – even if the pace of life today demands that these are meted out within a couple of hours of watching a movie for the first time.
The Tweeting is here to stay. The size of Toronto is here to stay and Telluride isn’t going anywhere. But the key portion of the equation that has changed is Toronto’s stance. Distributors can no longer have their cake and eat it. It is time for them to choose where to debut their autumn season premieres.