Toronto International Film Festival takes a stance on films debuting at niche Telluride festival

Does it really matter if you don’t get to launch your film at any of the big festivals – Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto? That depends on the type of film.

From left, Alfre Woodard, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Steve McQueen and Sarah Paulson of 12 Years a Slave, which debuted at the Telluride film festival. Photo by Walter McBride
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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become the place to launch Oscar contenders. It was a crown that once belonged to Venice, but as the Italian festival started to decline, studios increasingly began to take their award-worthy films to Toronto.

But last year TIFF, which takes place in September, got to experience what it's like when an upstart begins to challenge your crown. The 2014 Best Picture Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave had its world premiere at Telluride, Colorado, which is held just days before the Toronto festival, despite TIFF having announced the film would have its first screening in Canada.

It was an embarrassing situation that TIFF does not want repeated. The festival's artistic director, Cameron Bailey, decided to get tough by saying that any movie showing at Telluride would not get a coveted first-weekend slot at TIFF.

He also refused to announce a film as a North American or world premiere if he knew it was going to Telluride and so the loophole allowing Telluride to show films without them losing their premiere status was closed.

Why the concern? A film festival is judged on its ability to book world premieres. At one time, TIFF didn’t seem to care so much about having this but still got a lot of them because it could host 300 films, compared with the 100-odd at Venice. It could also take the best films from the traditional big-three festivals – Cannes, Berlin and Venice – safe in the knowledge that they would be playing for the first time in North America. Everyone seemed happy.

Then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to bring the Oscars forward from March to February, which made the autumn festivals the perfect place to launch Academy-Award contenders.

The beneficiary should have been Venice. But the Italian festival’s plan to open a new multi-screen cinema was halted when asbestos was found on the proposed site and the project was cancelled. Toronto built a new cinema complex and the films with Oscar buzz began going there instead.

A new status quo emerged in which Cannes, which takes place in May, got to show 50-odd films that were made by highly regarded auteurs and were ready by the start of the summer, while TIFF would show studio fare looking to make an impression on Oscar voters.

But then, along came Telluride, a smaller niche festival. There were no red carpets, everyone had to pay to see films and the programme was only announced on the first day of the festival. Because of this, it presented films as sneak previews rather than premieres. This unofficial status meant Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years a Slave both could play there before their official world premieres in Toronto.

That was fine, until the internet came along and media outlets desperate to be the first to critique a film started sending stringers to Telluride. Last year, all the major trade reviews for 12 Years a Slave came from the Colorado screening.

It is too early to say whether Bailey’s tough new approach will work. That will only be known when the Oscar nominations come around. Venice, which is first out of the blocks, doesn’t care whether a film then goes to Telluride or Toronto.

So, for example, Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes will play at Venice and then go to Toronto where, presumably, it won't play until the second week of the festival as it will also screen at Telluride. By going to Venice, it seems to have the best of all worlds. The Second World War code-breaking drama The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, will debut in Telluride before going to Toronto, again presumably in the second week.

But for his part, Bailey can boast a host of world premieres, including Miss Julie, The Judge and The Riot Club.

Does it really matter if you don’t get to launch your film at any of these festivals? That depends on the type of film.

If you have a huge movie with big stars, the media exposure is enormous. If you want to sell your films, all the world’s buyers are in Toronto. But if you bring a smaller fish, sometimes it is better to wait for a festival where you’re not in such a big pond.

For Middle East films, a good launch at one of the Arab festivals in the autumn often leads to a berth at the Berlin Film Festival in February. This is what happened with Son of Babylon and the exposure was enormous.

The flip side is that films that have travelled to Venice, Telluride or Toronto before coming to the Middle East arrive with an impressive stamp of approval.

Confusingly for filmmakers, there is no hard and fast festival rule.