TORONTO – The Toronto International Film Festival may be known for spectacle and glamour, but it’s the average movie fan that visiting celebrities say is the event’s big draw.
The 10-day showcase opens Thursday with the Brit biopic “Creation,” about the life of Charles Darwin, and will go on to reveal first looks at the new Coen brothers comedy “A Serious Man”; Jason Reitman’s “Up In the Air,” which is one of two George Clooney movies at the festival; Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s high school horror “Jennifer’s Body”; comic Ricky Gervais’s feature, “The Invention of Lying,” and Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It.”
All will be unspooled at theatres across the city, in many cases with average movie buffs taking in gala screenings alongside critics, industry honchos and the filmmakers themselves. Many big-name visitors say they revel in this rare opportunity to witness first-hand their work’s immediate impact on fans.
“The No. 1 thing about the Toronto film fest – and it’s become a cliche but it actually is true – is it’s just the best audiences in the world,” Quentin Tarantino declared during a red carpet interview in Toronto last month, when he opened his latest film, “Inglourious Basterds.”
“If you’re looking at the Midnight Madness movies, they’re there for it; if you’re seeing the new (film by French director) Eric Rohmer, they’re there for it. Whatever the proper audience for the movie is, the Toronto audience brings it.”
Organizers tout the annual pageant as a mix of glitz and mainstream appeal, distinct from more industry-based rivals in Venice and Cannes and well-poised to launch the North American fall film schedule, not to mention early Oscar campaigns.
Last year’s fan favourite was Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” a surprise crowd-pleaser that rode a wave of momentum all the way to the Oscars. But experience has shown that festival fans are not always good predictors of what will hit big with critics.
Actor Paul Giamatti recalls bringing his small 2004 film “Sideways” to the Toronto fest, where an enthusiastic reception paved the way to widespread acclaim. But it was his experience debuting the 2000 flop “Duets” that has stuck with him through the years.
“It was a big lesson to me because the premiere of that movie there, it was the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen a crowd be in a movie premiere,” Giamatti said in a recent interview just before shooting an adaptation of the Mordecai Richler book, “Barney’s Version.”
“And then it got killed by critics and so nobody went and saw it. And I thought well, ‘That’s really interesting, they really do have power.’ They’re always wincing about how they don’t have any power, it was like they killed this movie and actually the audience loved it.”
He praised Toronto fans for keeping the fest’s focus on films themselves, and for providing a healthy balance to industry delegates’ backroom wheeling-and-dealing and Oscar predictions.
“It definitely had that feeling, as opposed to Sundance, or something, (where) I felt like, ‘Wow, these people are just sitting here watching this movie and really liking it and nobody’s making the kind of judgment that’s guided by, ‘Do I want to buy this movie?’ or ‘What am I supposed to think of this movie?’ “
“Creation” nabbed a distribution deal Tuesday with Canadian upstart D Films.
Husband and wife stars Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany are scheduled to be in Toronto when the film premieres on opening night. Undoubtedly, the presence of a little star power doesn’t hurt when it comes to drawing attention to a new title.
This year, a wide range of celebrities are confirmed to walk the red carpet, including Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Ewan McGregor, Penelope Cruz, Colin Farrell, Julianne Moore, Chris Rock, Michael Caine and Sarah Ferguson.
Meanwhile, musical legends Neil Young and Joan Baez are among the performers appearing at free daily screenings at a downtown square. Others stopping by the free events include directors Jonathan Demme and George Romero, rapper Chuck D and the cast of Barrymore’s “Whip It,” which stars Ellen Page, Kristen Whig and Marcia Gay Harden.
It was a big-name hero of a different sort that brought audiences to their feet at one festival screening several years ago, recalls filmmaker Peter Raymont. At the time, he and partner Michele Hozer were debuting their Romeo Dallaire biopic, “Shake Hands with the Devil.”
“And it was an extraordinary experience for both of us, for Gen. Dallaire,” says Raymont, who returns to the festival this year with Hozer and their documentary, “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.”
“(There was a) standing ovation, both before the film started when people realized Gen. Dallaire was in the audience, and after they’d seen the film.”
Emerging director Rob Stefaniuk adds that the festival’s high profile puts immeasurable weight behind smaller indie projects such as his rock ‘n’ roll vampire feature “Suck”, which debuts at the festival.
“It means everything for a Canadian filmmaker,” says Stefaniuk, from Toronto.
“Without TIFF you don’t have the support or the attention of the press or anything. You really need to get your films out there and without TIFF you’re sort of damned to obscurity, sadly.” The Toronto festival runs Sept. 10 to 19.