The opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival sparks all sorts of frenzied questions and speculation. Which movie will win the coveted People’s Choice Award? Why are there so many conspicuously empty seats during gala screenings? What is that smell in the press lounge? (Answers: Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, maybe; flaky sponsors, likely; and the unwashed aroma of pure desperation, definitely.)
But the one question dominating the TIFF queues and hotel hallways and hospitality suites the past few days is this: Does size matter?
Namely, should TIFF be using its big screens to program so many Netflix films that – despite the streaming giant’s insistence otherwise – will be mostly seen on screens so small that you carry them around in your pocket? That debate reared its head at Friday morning’s industry panel entitled "Going to the Movies: Why Cinemas Matter", where two things became clear: A) The gatekeepers of cinema’s traditional production and exhibition pipelines do not like talking about Netflix whatsoever, and B) That may not matter for much longer.
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“The exciting and terrifying thing right now is that all of the rules are broken,” producer Helen Estabrook (The Front Runner) said, to knowing nods in the audience. “It’s a strange time, and it’s really just about figuring out a story to tell, and finding a place that gives you the best resources to tell it.”
Beyond TIFF itself adopting a platform-agnostic stance – “The filmmaking is what we follow, and we’re watching movies in a lot of different ways now,” artistic director Cameron Bailey told The Globe and Mail – the industry’s own talent is increasingly unconcerned about just how large a canvas their work is going to be afforded.
“It’s about content,” Julia Roberts told The Globe, while at TIFF promoting both a film (Ben Is Back) and an Amazon streaming series (Homecoming). “It’s telling an interesting story in a unique way so that it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from: your living room or a building you have to drive to.”
Which, given the current fight-to-the-death entertainment landscape, is fair enough. Not everyone can get to the theatre, so best for producers to cross their fingers and hope for mere exposure. But as inevitable as this future seems, one TIFF screening on Sunday offered a rousing, fist-pumping argument against going small: The IMAX world premiere of First Man.
The Damien Chazelle drama, which traces Neil Armstrong’s career with NASA through his Apollo 11 mission, could technically be enjoyed on the screen of your choice. Its arc – constructed less like a familiar beat-by-beat biopic and more as an urgent thriller, where even set-in-stone history seems up for grabs – is immersive, engaging and dizzying in its narrative spell. Ryan Gosling, Chazelle’s La La Land leading man, makes an excellent Armstrong, all steel and dedication. And he’s backed by a supporting cast, including Claire Foy as wife Janet and a rash of hey-it’s-that-guy character actors playing NASA honchos, that will make you race to IMDb.
But Chazelle’s visceral images – captured on a mix of 35mm, 16mm, VistaVision and IMAX film – are designed for the biggest screen you can imagine. This goes double for the film’s final 20 minutes, which dramatizes Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing with a terrifying majesty. When viewed on the Cinesphere’s screen Sunday afternoon, the experience was transfomative.
As Chazelle oscillates between documenting all of NASA’s various missteps – there were many – and peering behind the Armstrongs’ domestic life, he conjures the type of cinematic high any film-goer has been chasing since they first stepped inside a theatre.
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First Man is a generous but also somewhat unexpected experience, given Chazelle’s filmography. La La Land, Whiplash and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench are small-scale music-centric projects, and while they each display incredible confidence and precision across the board, they simply do not prepare audiences for the epic, and successful, experimentation of First Man.
Screening the film at the Ontario Place theatre was a canny bit of programming on TIFF’s part. Last year, the festival took advantage of the fact that the Cinesphere was coming out of a long dormancy to play a special IMAX print of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. That Second World War drama had been released months earlier, yet slotting it during the festival gave TIFF an undeniable energy that cannot be duplicated in its King West environs. It was a rallying cry that, despite the dominance and convenience of streaming services, there is no competition for the potential of a true experience.
“To be able to screen it this way,” Chazelle told the TIFF audience Sunday, “is a dream to me.”
Here’s to more dreamers.