Venice is old and prestigious. Berlin is artsy and edgy. Cannes is opulent and elitist. The combination of a scenic backdrop and a matching selection of screenings has allowed these film festivals to develop unmistakable personalities that never fail to bring together cinema purists from their respective niches. Three times a year, crowds flock to Europe to get a glimpse of not only the cinematic novelties that they showcase, but also of the glamour they’re associated with. Lavish outfits, a high–profile guest list, “movies–with–subtitles,” and a somewhat pretentious, quasi–intellectual discourse: for decades, this extravagant mix has been a trademark of The Big Three, each of which has become a brand of its own.
I am European. I grew up learning about the New Wave and Italian neorealism. While they might commonly ring a bell for aficionados only, I ultimately think of Werner Herzog and Aleksandr Sokurov as household names. I strongly believe there’s a certain aura to arthouse films that blockbusters will never be able to fully recreate. But I also know that they will never be, even remotely, as popular—ars gratia artis is a self–sacrificing concept.
The naked truth is that, in today’s essentially spectaclist society, appreciation comes in the form of profit. It makes sense, then, that there are ongoing efforts to close the gap between critics and the mass market: ideally, accolades should take into consideration both the artistic merit of a film and its accessibility. Perhaps this ideology best describes the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes—they aim to reward films liked not only by the Moleskine–carrying, turtleneck–wearing hipsters of the world, but also by the regular, less knowledgeable movie–goer.
With this in mind, a quick look at the structure of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) explains why, in spite of its relative infancy compared to its European counterparts, it has become arguably the most significant generator of Oscar buzz. The Big Three incorporate standalone competitions ruled by a specialized jury: winning a Golden Lion, Golden Bear or Palme d’Or will definitely give way to discussion amongst experts and devotees, but will not necessarily guarantee financial success. On the other hand, TIFF’s People's Choice Award—its most important—is based on audience balloting. In the past, crowd–pleasers such as 12 Years a Slave, Slumdog Millionaire, or The King’s Speech have been recipients of the prize; they all went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
If TIFF’s goal is to popularize high–quality cinema, then history proves it to be successful. With a total of thirty Oscar wins between 2000 and 2016 (almost eight times more than Cannes), TIFF movies are both critically acclaimed and financially successful. Looking at this year’s lineup, it’s not hard to understand why—a large number of the Academy’s sweethearts are debuting their films at TIFF. Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman star in The Upside, a Weinstein company–produced remake of the French 2011 box–office success The Intouchables. David Gordon Green (dir. Pineapple Express, 2008) just debuted his Boston marathon bombing drama Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, to great critical acclaim. The Mountains Between Us also sounds like a recipe for success: directed by two–time Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad, it tells the story of a surgeon and a journalist (portrayed by Idris Elba and Kate Winslet) who survive a plane crash, but get lost in the wilderness. And these are only three of the nearly four hundred films shown over the course of ten days, forty–eight of which are world premieres.
Toronto will bid farewell to the international film community on September 17. In line with past years’ tradition, this date will unofficially mark the beginning of the prestigious awards season—not that important ceremonies actually start happening (The Golden Globes aren’t until January 7), but rather because, after TIFF, predictions can begin. Whether or not the Academy die will have already been cast by the end of the festival, one thing is certain: TIFF favorites have always been strong contenders in the Oscars race, so it’s safe to start placing your bets.