If the late Dusty Cohl’s tales are to be believed, TIFF was born thanks to a lucky parking job. In 1960, the Toronto lawyer was on a European vacation with his wife when they cruised into Cannes. Somehow, Cohl snagged a prime parking spot at the famed Carlton Hotel, and the couple found themselves smack in the middle of the biggest film festival in the world. Over the next 16 years, Cohl made the Carlton terrace his home away from home – becoming fast friends with critics and industry types over many, many cocktails – before floating the idea of a Toronto festival with friend Bill Marshall, who was mulling a similar project back home.
Bill Marshall (co-founder, TIFF): I was sitting in Mayor David Crombie’s office one day – I was his chief of staff – and I was tired of listening to city councillors yammering on. My business partner, Henk [Van der Kolk] and I had a production company, and we both asked ourselves, when are we going to make real movies?
Henk Van der Kolk (co-founder, TIFF): We were making industrial pictures, educational films. But we thought that by starting a film festival, we would get the world to recognize us. To say, we’re here!
Marshall: The only movies being made in Canada were documentaries by Allan King. There was no feature film industry per se. Just Americans coming in and using us as a backdrop.
In 1976 at Cannes, Marshall and Cohl announced plans for Toronto’s first “Festival of Festivals,” with Van der Kolk choosing to stay out of the spotlight to handle the financial side of things. The issue of who, exactly, came up with the germ of the idea remains a matter of contention.
Van der Kolk: It’s not any one person who did it. We had Dusty, who liked being around show business. He was a friend of Bill’s, who then came to me. We all agreed, hey, doing a festival would suit our druthers for the future of the film industry in Canada. Without any one of three who became acknowledged as the founders of the festival, it would not have happened.
Brian D. Johnson (president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, and director of 2015 TIFF selection Al Purdy Was Here): People always say the festival sold out to Hollywood, but it didn’t – that was always the plan. It was cooked up by people on the terrace of the Carlton in Cannes! If ever there was an unholy alliance between high-pedigree art-house cinema and glitz, it’s Cannes. They wanted to produce that in Toronto.
The first festival ran Oct. 18 to 24 later that year, with 80 feature-length films, $6 passes and venues including the Uptown Backstage, the New Yorker and the Toronto-Dominion Centre Theatres, all of which are now gone. Yet, funding was sparse, Hollywood studios held back their offerings, the local press couldn’t have cared less, and celebrities were few and far between.
Marshall: The city didn’t have any money, the province didn’t have any money, we didn’t have an industry to raise money.
Van der Kolk: Our bank manager at the 2 Bloor West CIBC gave us $125,000 on our signatures to kick-start the festival. We did it on our money and American Express cards. It took some time to get them back.
Marshall: Dusty had made friends with all the foreign industry press at Cannes, so we had attention from guys like Roger Ebert and [Charles] Champlin at the L.A. Times.
Fred (The Hammer) Williamson (blaxploitation star, and one of the few recognizable names at the 1976 fest): I remember this guy with a big cowboy hat in Cannes talking it up, and he was very serious about making a good impression – Canadians wanted to be taken seriously. You’d never think Dusty was in the film business, but hey, the guy got it done and he didn’t have to take his hat off to do it.
Piers Handling (current CEO of TIFF): I came that year for the program of new German cinema put together by Jan Dawson, which included a complete retrospective of Wim Wenders films. It was huge for a cinephile. You could feel the energy in the cinema.
Marshall: The first was a success, but not the way I thought it would be: It was a very duct-taped situation. Before this, Toronto was a dull black-and-white town. You went out to the opera, had a glass of punch, then went home. But we were partying as hard as we could into the small hours of the morning. We brought out the rock-and-roll side of Toronto.
Robert Lantos (producer): It was gonzo fun. There was no science to it, just a lot of movies, haphazardly scheduled. I found out about parties at the last minute. It was diametrically opposite from what it is today. I was 26 at the time, so it seemed like a lot of fun for a 26-year-old.
With the first edition having pulled in 7,000 people a day, expectations were high for the second year. Organizers shifted the timing up one month to September, and managed to lure such stars as Liza Minnelli, Peter O’Toole and the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler.
Van der Kolk: His agent said, ‘If you want Henry, you have to guarantee security.’ He was usually mobbed wherever he went. No matter how much I told this guy that Canadians aren’t like that, he wouldn’t listen. So I got some cops to flank him as he arrived at the theatre. But nobody did anything. On stage, he said that Toronto is the most laid-back place he’s been to except for his own living room. We’re Hollywood’s living room.
Cohl, Marshall and Van der Kolk may have been festival rookies, but they knew enough to hire outside programmers to curate the festival, some of whom quickly developed intense followings.
Helga Stephenson (TIFF chief, 1987-94): There was a programming philosophy put into place by [festival programmer] Linda Beath: something for every taste. Each programmer had autonomy – it wasn’t programming by committee. It’s the only program book in the world with notes signed individually by the programmer. David Overbey brought Asian films to North America. He was ferocious in his selections.
Kay Armatage (festival programmer, 1983-2004): Linda curated some fascinating programs with important women filmmakers. Joe Medjuck curated a program of Marguerite Duras films, which was stunning. Everyone there was on the case.
Handling: It was a smaller festival and it was easier to meet people, both filmmakers and programmers. You felt very much part of a cult.
The festival continued to build momentum, but it raced straight to the spotlight in 1978, when its third edition opened with In Praise of Older Women. The Lantos-produced drama would likely have faded into the margins of festival history had it not caught the ire of the Ontario Censor Board, which wanted to cut 40 seconds out of the (somewhat) sexually adventurous film.
Stephenson: God bless [censorship board chair] Mary Brown. She got us on the front pages for such a silly thing.
Lantos: It’s a very tame and innocent movie by today’s standards. I guess it would be cynical to say that I was hoping something like that would happen. But it would be disingenuous of me to say I wasn’t.
With the public’s curiosity piqued, a full-capacity crowd showed up to the opening night, a stormy and transit strike-plagued Sept. 14, 1978. Yet, because of a printing error, each ticket mistakenly allowed for a plus-one. About 4,000 people showed up at the 1,600-seat Elgin Theatre.
Lantos: I also had the bright idea to replicate a scene in the movie and arrive in horse and carriage instead of a limo. And then there were so many who couldn’t get in, demanding overflow screenings. It was a mess.
Helen Shaver (co-star, In Praise of Older Women): It was crazy. The evening had controversy and mystery and something risqué. I don’t know to this day if a Canadian film has ever opened to such massive, frenzied excitement. It was a big ordeal to just get to the front door.
While festival director Wayne Clarkson scrambled to keep the fire marshal at bay and set up an overflow screening for furious ticket holders, officers from the vice squad were in the projection booth to ensure organizers ran the censored cut.
Lantos: John Roberts, then the secretary of state, got up on stage, took the mic and said, “I hear there are police here tonight. If anybody is going to be arrested for showing this film, I want to be the first.” That raised the stakes too high for the vice squad. They did nothing. There were two prints in the projection booth, but I was running in and out of the screening the whole time, so I don’t know which version was screened. Here’s the truth: No one knows. What the projectionist did, only he knows.
Martin Heath (projectionist, former director of film traffic): I substituted the last half of the film from the uncensored print to the censored print. Technically, it was a crime, but it worked.
Johnson: I look at the movie now and can’t imagine why there was fuss about it. But the censor board played a wonderfully villainous role. Lantos couldn’t have stage-managed it better.
Shaver: I sat beside my father at the screening. Afterward, he just said, “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
With a strong programming team led by Clarkson, the festival continued to grow at a rapid pace over the next few years – and thanks to some high-placed friends, Toronto finally made inroads with the studios that would later prove to define TIFF.
Handling: Studios were mistrustful in the beginning. They never wanted their films to be labelled a festival film – to them, that meant it was just designed for the art-house crowd. But people like [the Toronto Sun’s George] Anthony, Brian Linehan and Norman Jewison were close with the studios. Norman would go to Warner Bros. and say, let’s start thinking of opening the festival or closing it. You cannot underestimate his impact.
Norman Jewison (director): I tried to influence the studios as much as I could, though I also wanted the festival to be careful not to allow the marketing forces of the American studios to take over. You had to keep your independence.
Handling: Honestly, it was the marketing departments that made the decisions at the end of the day. And some people in marketing departments stay forever.
Jewison: Timing in life is everything, as Bobby Kennedy once told me. And the timing of the festival in September, like Venice, well, that made them the only two festivals in the fall, when all the good films are released.
Van der Kolk: The American producers made all sorts of money here, but they weren’t interested in our film festival. Now, they are banging down the door.
As Hollywood warmed up, so did its stars, some of whom turned Toronto into a sort of bacchanalian free-for-all.
Marshall: Most festivals treat guests like crap. If you go to Cannes or Venice, it’s like, thanks for the movie, we’ll call you if you win a prize. Here, we take them to dinner, let them talk to each other, so we just made people feel happy as clams.
Johnson: It’s not like these guys, Bill and Dusty and Henk and Wayne and Helga, were trained to handle Hollywood stars. Nobody told them how to handle Martin Scorsese with serious medicinal needs or Warren Beatty being an absolute control freak trying to manage his own tribute from several thousand miles away.
Anna Stratton (producer and former manager of the festival guest office): We tried to fulfill any request that came in. You could use your imagination. People would request everything from alcohol to, you know, other kinds of pleasures.
Johnson: Now, when stars come to TIFF, there’s layers of publicists and people with headsets. Back then, it was, “Gee, the guests want to do something and the bars are closed after the film played, so let’s create a speakeasy. And get some drugs.”
By the time Toronto booked the premiere of The Big Chill for its opening night in 1983, it was clear a sea change was under way. The Hollywood tributes were growing bigger each year. The velvet ropes started to pop up. The after-parties gained VIP rooms. And the Oscar race now looked to Toronto as its unofficial starting line. TIFF, for better or worse, had gone Hollywood.
Marshall: In Hollywood, nobody knows anything. They’d give us a dog, but it turned out to be a huge hit. The Big Chill was supposed to be a disaster, but there was a huge standing ovation at the end. All the marketing people there got on the phone, saying, hey this might be okay.
Stephenson: With The Big Chill, the studio knew they had something, but didn’t know if it would sell, if it would be embraced. So when they saw the reaction, they went back and readjusted the marketing budgets and it became a huge hit. It turned Toronto into the place to take your film.
Johnson: The festival didn’t entirely drink its own Kool-Aid back then about being the “people’s festival.” It was designed as a three-ring circus by Bill. Years later, when the stars finally started to show up, that changed the festival forever.
Handling: Now, audiences expect to see talent with virtually every single film and see the biggest stars in the world. There’s a huge pressure to deliver that. It used to be a big deal if you could get one or two stars over the course of the entire festival. Now, you have to produce rabbits out of the hat for the first weekend.
Lantos: The size has changed, the international standing, the presence of buyers and sellers, the massive influx of media and celebrities. But the audiences aren’t that different today from ’76. They come to enjoy the movies.
The 40th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 10-20.