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TIFF 2017

At the Toronto International Film Festival, how do you ensure that the people have actually spoken?

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor in a scene from Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2009 after winning the People’s Choice Award at TIFF.

Everybody knows what winning the Grolsch People's Choice Award (GPCA) at the Toronto International Film Festival can do for a film – at best, Oscar glory; at worst, a hell of a lot of free publicity, plus $15,000 and a custom trophy. But when it comes to tabulating the votes, there's math, and then there's magic.

Numbers don't lie, but they don't always stand still, either. TIFF 2017 boasts 255 features and 84 shorts. All of them will screen at least twice in the next nine days, and some will screen three or four times. Every audience member in every one of those screenings is able to vote with his/her ticket, just by dropping it in the boxes brandished by volunteers at the exits. Anybody who downloads the TIFF app can also vote online, at any time during the festival, and for as many films as he/she wants – but only once per film.

The folks with the ballot boxes wait until the last audience member has been given the chance to vote. When a box is full, someone brings it back to the Lightbox HQ, where it's kept under watch. Members of the visitor-experience team, led by Laura Ryan, do the counting. Those votes are added to the online votes.

It's not that simple, however. Consider these numbers: TIFF's films appear on 27 screens, and no two of those screening rooms has the same number of seats. Roy Thomson Hall, the biggest venue, holds 1,962 people during TIFF screenings. The Winter Garden holds 960. Cinema 1 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox seats 523. The smallest screening room at the Scotiabank Theatre, Theatre 5, holds 134. Films tend to play in their largest house for their first screening, and move to smaller ones with each subsequent screening. So how can a film that screens in the 200-seat Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario compete to one that screens in the 1,723-seat Princess of Wales?

Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from 12 Years a Slave, which won TIFF’s People’s Choice Award before going on to win the Oscar for best picture in 2014.

Enter the math. Votes aren't only counted: they're calculated. "It's done on a percentage of the house basis," Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director, said in an interview. "If a large percentage of a house votes, say 70 per cent, in any size theatre, we consider them equal," and start to keep an eye on that title. "It's not an exact science," he admits. "But you can tell through the overall volume of the votes if a film has momentum." Midway through TIFF, a picture begins to emerge of who the leaders are.

Total physical votes, plus total online votes, divided by the total audience for the film, yields a number "that's pretty detailed," Bailey insists. "Down to two decimal points." Some contests are closer than others, but there's never been a tie.

Calculating the value of the award, though, is another matter. Since 1978, when TIFF began handing out a People's Choice Award, the number of winners that went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards is only five: Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech and 12 Years a Slave. But it's fun for TIFF audiences – and pretty great PR for the festival itself – that that number is perceived to be higher. Shine, Precious, Silver Linings Playbook and Room may not have won best picture, but their stars won acting Oscars. Life Is Beautiful and Tsotsi won best foreign-language-film Oscars; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Amélie were nominated.

Brie Larson, left, won the Oscar for best actress in 2016 for her role in Room alongside Jacob Tremblay.

In 2000, TIFF began announcing second- and third-place finishers for the People's Choice Award, and why not? Runners-up get their bump at the box office, and TIFF audiences are given an extra chance to look like Oscar predictors, because we loved Argo and Spotlight, too. In recent years, TIFF began naming best documentary and best Midnight Madness films, to goose those categories as well.

No matter how you determine the numbers, the GPCA means big business. "The reason that filmmakers, the industry and the media come [to TIFF] in such large numbers is that they want to see what the Toronto audience thinks," Bailey says. The GPCA is "the clearest measure we have for how an audience is going to react to a film." It's one thing to stand at the back of a theatre, and try to listen to how loud the applause is or how long it goes. "But people have to make an extra effort to vote for a film," Bailey goes on, "and that gives us an idea of what kind of support there really is."

The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth, won the Oscar for best picture in 2011.

Bailey is careful to add that TIFF's role isn't to kick-start awards campaigns; it is to "connect a public audience with the movie." But in Cannes and Venice, juries award the festival prizes. In Toronto, the people speak for themselves. So if the chance to play a small part of history is the reason some of that public buys a ticket, well, that's a win-win.

One more question: If the math is so complicated, and the prize so coveted, is the voting corruptible? The gala screenings at the biggest houses are stuffed with the people who financed and made those films – doesn't that give them an insurmountable edge?

"They get a vote," Bailey says evenly. "But we try to look out for an organized attempt to amass votes. Sometimes you can tell if someone has corralled all the tickets from a large group of people. But since we look at subsequent screenings as well, that helps correct for that." In other words, if the percentage of votes at the first screening is 80, but it's only 20 at the next two, the number will even itself out.

Bailey also says that paper-ballot boxes will be phased out in the next few years, and all voting will move online. Sure, there could be keeners who grab their friends' phones and vote for the same film on multiple devices, but it's unlikely those numbers would be significant.

Lenny Kravitz and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious, which won two Oscars in 2010.

And yes, some filmmakers lobby for votes more vociferously than others. But that's all part of the fun, Bailey says: "Though the prize has a reputation for being an Oscar bellwether, filmmakers from all over the world are keen to win it. They can see what it did for films like Where Do We Go Now? and Whale Rider. At every screening, we remind people to vote. But sometimes the filmmakers at the end of a Q&A will flat out ask the audience, 'Vote!' Or they'll use social-media campaigns. I don't think anyone's had an unfair advantage, though. It helps generate excitement."

In the end, the Grolsch People's Choice Award comes down to the will of the audience, and as everyone in the movie business will agree, no one can predict that. "You think you know what people want, but you can't predict what is going to make them happy," Bailey says. "It's a great testament to the maturity of the Toronto audience that they're not looking just for feel-good movies. They're looking for movies that make them feel, period. There are surprises every year. There's enough unpredictability built into movies that the prize will always have some degree of that as well."

Votes are countable. Voters can't be quantified.