Films starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Julianne Moore and two versions of Tom Hardy are heading to the 40th Toronto International Film Festival, organizers announced on Tuesday at their first press conference of the year.
But while TIFF's initial slate contained a healthy dose of celebrity along with a typical helping of CanCon, the lineup also revealed which much-anticipated movies will debut at competing film festivals days before bowing in Toronto – and hinted at the city's ever-shifting place in the increasingly competitive film festival circuit.
Thanks to the categorization of TIFF's 2015 selections – world, international, North American or Canadian premiere – a careful eye can glean where a film is first set to screen. For instance, of the 15 "gala" films announced – including the opening-night selection, Jean-Marc Vallée's Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ridley Scott's The Martian, starring Mr. Damon as a stranded astronaut – 12 are classified as world premieres. Each is exclusive to Toronto's festival, which will run Sept. 10 to 20.
Yet three gala films are not TIFF's to debut to the world: Atom Egoyan's drama Remember and Julie Delpy's comedy Lolo are North American premieres, while Brian Helgeland's crime saga Legend, in which Mr. Hardy plays gangster twins, is an international premiere. It takes only a bit of decoding to realize that, because Remember and Lolo were not shown at Cannes in the spring, the films will likely play first at the Venice Film Festival, which will reveal its lineup on Wednesday. Legend, meanwhile, is set to open in British theatres on Sept. 9, at least one day before its slot at TIFF (a world premiere being "the first public screening anywhere in the world," and an international one "the first public screening outside a film's home country").
Although it can seem like Hollywood jargon, the intricacies of what film debuts where play a huge part in an industry obsessed with handicapping the Oscar race, and what festival, if any, can control it. Whereas TIFF used to be able to brag that it and it alone broke such award winners as Silver Linings Playbook and Moneyball, it also noticed that some of its so-called world premieres, including 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, were getting "sneak peeks" at the relatively tiny Telluride Film Festival – and just days before they were set to be anointed as Toronto-only coups.
Last year, TIFF introduced a controversial policy aimed at blunting Telluride's emerging influence by banning any movie that was not a world or North American premiere during its first four days. It did not go over well – Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, called the approach "imperialistic" – and in June, TIFF announced that it was reversing the move, although with a twist: Any films to screen during the first four days that are not world or North American premieres are barred from the glitziest venues: Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre and the Visa Screening Room at the Elgin Theatre.
At Tuesday's press conference, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey shrugged off tensions with Telluride. "Do you play baseball? Have you heard of inside baseball? That's essentially it," he said. "These are minor things that are film-industry technical things that won't be relevant for general audiences." Pressed for details on TIFF's competitive strategy, Mr. Bailey added: "It's hard to even explain. We have worked out with film companies a plan that's going to give them maximum flexibility … while also retaining the excitement of the first half of our festival."
Judging from Tuesday's announcement, though, it appears that TIFF's approach to the competition is still wobbly. Simply look at TIFF's "special presentation" lineup: Black Mass, director Scott Cooper's much-hyped biopic of gangster James (Whitey) Bulger starring Mr. Depp, is labelled as a Canadian premiere, meaning it will likely play Telluride first. Ditto Anomalisa, a stop-motion film from Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman; Beasts of No Nation starring Idris Elba and directed by True Detective's Cary Fukunaga; and Lenny Abrahamson's Room, his adaptation of Emma Donoghue's bestselling novel starring Brie Larson (which must doubly hurt TIFF as Ms. Donoghue is based in London, Ont.).
Tuesday's slate also contained films that played Cannes or Sundance earlier this year – par for TIFF's course – including John Crowley's period drama Brooklyn; Quebec director Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, starring Ms. Blunt; and Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, which won the Palme d'Or. (Additional films will be announced in the coming weeks, including the closing night feature.)
While all 49 of the films announced on Tuesday will surely be given the appropriate levels of love and affection when they play TIFF – the festival unquestionably draws more world press than Telluride, and has a higher industry presence than Venice – the lineup cannot help but feel exciting and underwhelming at the same time. In an industry where every step on the road to the Oscars matters, TIFF once again revealed a giant footprint – even if this time it seems just a few strides behind.