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The road from the red carpet to the Oscars

I remember the first time I experienced it, the rush of love an audience at the Toronto International Film Festival can feel for a movie. It was in 1995, at the third TIFF screening of Antonia's Line , a Dutch entry about three generations in a liberal, matriarchal family. Halfway through, I looked around the room and thought, "People are really with this thing; they are inside it." The movie ends with a big swoop of emotion and as the credits rolled, I burst into tears.

Immediately everyone leapt to their feet, clapping like mad. The writer-director, Marleen Gorris, stood up to wave and she was crying, too, and everyone was crying and waving back. The ovation lasted for minutes. No one wanted to leave the room. The second I hit the lobby, I phoned the editor of a New York magazine I was writing for, saying, "I've just seen the film that's going to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film." Six months later, it did.

But first it won TIFF's People's Choice Award - voted on by audiences - trumping 295 other films, including Gus Van Sant's To Die For and Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite (though the latter would win an Oscar, too, best supporting actress for Mira Sorvino). It wasn't the first time a TIFF smash would go on to nab Oscar gold, and it sure wouldn't be the last. The list goes on and on: from Chariots of Fire (1981), The Official Story (1985) and Places in the Heart (1984) - which means that Sally Field's infamous "You like me, you really like me," best-actress acceptance speech can be blamed on TIFF - through Shine (1996), American Beauty (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); to Tsotsi and Capote (2005), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

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The TIFF effect is a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because a film that scores here may get released a bit earlier to capitalize on its hype, or may get a bump in its marketing budget.

So it's no surprise that, as reported in The New York Times on Tuesday, all eyes are on TIFF to make sense of this Oscar season, which promises to be one of the weirdest in memory. Due to distributor caution, 30 to 40 per cent fewer films than last year are scheduled for release between now and the end of the year. Yet these fewer films will be competing for slots in an expanded Oscar race, with 10 nominees for best picture rather than the usual five. So high are the expectations that a TIFF hit will march from our red carpets to Oscar's, I wondered if the programmers here aren't feeling pressured.

Jane Schoettle, a long-time international programmer for TIFF who has a particular reputation for selecting the People's Choice-winning film, claims that Oscar never crosses her mind. "Absolutely not," she said. "We have our own needs to meet, the needs of our audience. It's great when the nominations are announced, to see that we picked well. And audiences have told us they love seeing something here first that goes on to win. But I'm not sure it [TIFF films' winning Oscars]brings much to us, except for closing the circle. Filmmakers will always come to us regardless, because we invest in them and they know it."

"We're asked about the Oscars all the time, by journalists, filmmakers, people in the industry," said Cameron Bailey, TIFF's co-director. "People do see us as the place where films can break out. But it's because of our audience. In Cannes and Sundance the audience is mainly industry people. Ours are real filmgoers. They come every year, they know movies, and they're looking for what's new and good."

Naturally, Hollywood pays attention. Last year with Slumdog Millionaire , for example, "the buzz started to happen early," Bailey said. "You heard people talking about it in the lines and theatre aisles. By the time of the final Saturday screening, it had enormous momentum. The audience was hyped. The executives from Fox Searchlight in the theatre could see what was going on. They knew they could tap that for North America."

"I always tell buyers that yes, they can go to the Press & Industry screenings, but they should really see it with the paying audiences," says Colin Geddes, who programs TIFF's Midnight Madness series. "It's a myth that Toronto audiences love everything. They know when something is really happening."

So the TIFF effect is a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because a film that scores here may get released a bit earlier to capitalize on its hype, or may get a bump in its marketing budget that keeps it in theatres long enough to become a contender. It's strong enough, though, that filmmakers and sales agents have become superstitious about nabbing screening times and venues that they consider lucky.

Director Jason Reitman, for example, has come to TIFF with two films, Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Juno (2007). Both premiered at the 6 p.m. show at the Ryerson Theatre on the first Saturday of TIFF, and both went on to do extremely well, especially Juno , which earned Oscar nominations for best director and best actress (Ellen Page), and an Oscar win for Diablo Cody's screenplay. Guess where and when Reitman's third TIFF film, Up in the Air , will premiere this year?

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As well, so many hits premiered at the now-razed Uptown that at the final TIFF screening there, the audience observed a moment of silence for the theatre and gave a standing ovation to the screen.

Yet no matter how direct the path from TIFF to Oscar looks, Schoettle says the film industry is growing more twisted every year. "There used to be two options for a film: Either it got theatrical distribution or it didn't," she says. "Now there are so many possibilities. It may get distribution in some cities, it may get a Video-on-Demand release, a DVD or TV sale, it may get released online. There are no rules any more. Hollywood is so focused on the North American deal, but that's only a small part of the world." One of the films she's most excited about, for example, is La Soga , a drama about a Dominican assassin for the secret police. "The Spanish-language audience is crying out for film, and this is a great one," Schoettle says. "It will be seen, whether or not it's released in the traditional way."

TIFF programmers think much more about the filmmakers than they do the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Schoettle says. "We want these films to be thought of as contenders if that will drive people into theatre seats. And I'm certain we'll see some of our films on the podium in February. But for us, it's more about knowing that, just by scheduling someone's film, we can significantly alter the course of his or her career and life. We take that really, really seriously."

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