It arrived in the world as a gala premiere on the second night of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, blazing red-carpet flashes and a Roy Thomson Hall standing ovation. At the press conference the next morning for Stronger, a heartrending drama based on a true story about a man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing, critics praised stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Miranda Richardson and Tatiana Maslany, and predicted Gyllenhaal was a lock for an Oscar nod.
But when the film hit theatres less than two weeks later, the festival excitement fizzled fast. Paying audiences turned a cold shoulder. In the end, carrying an estimated production budget of US$30-million, Stronger’s North American box office topped out at a hair over US$4.2-million: only enough to land it 153rd among all theatrically released films last year, according to the tracking website Box Office Mojo.
And yet, among the 20 films of TIFF’s 2017 gala program, Stronger was a relative success: 16 others took in even less money during their North American box office runs.
Though they are among the festival’s most heavily promoted films – TIFF bills the program as “Movie stars. Red carpet premieres. Major audience interest” – a Globe and Mail analysis of the past five years of TIFF gala features indicates that fewer than half, 43 out of 100, have gone on to take in more than US$1-million at the North American box office.
As moviegoers sharpen their elbows to snag the hottest tickets at TIFF – and pay top dollar to do so – a reality check might be in order: Stripped of the red carpet sizzle and the festival hype, most of the films programmed as galas prove powerfully uninteresting to general audiences once they land in local cinemas.
In fact, some take in less money at the commercial box office than they might do in a single night at TIFF (though that revenue flows to the festival rather than the film’s distributor). Galas are held at the 1,800-seat Roy Thomson Hall, where the top single ticket price this year is $80: assuming an average ticket price of $50 would yield a gross of $90,000 for a sold-out screening. (Many seats are reserved for corporate or other patrons, who pay even more than that for access to parties and other perks.)
Meanwhile, last year’s Jessica Chastain drama Woman Walks Ahead took in only US$42,000 during its theatrical release, according to Box Office Mojo. Three other gala films weren’t even released theatrically, while a fourth, Mudbound, was acquired by Netflix before TIFF and released in only a handful of theatres in order to qualify for the Oscars. (The strategy worked: it snagged four nominations.)
TIFF says it is not concerned by the lacklustre postfestival performances of most of its gala films. “The galas are not programmed to be a precursor to a film’s box office,” Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director, said in a phone interview this week.
In choosing the program, “we’re looking for films that are very accessible, in terms of their storytelling style, that every filmgoer, from a cinephile to a regular moviegoer, could enjoy. They typically have the calibre of red carpet talent that’s going to appeal to audiences – and that could be red carpet talent from Hollywood, from Bollywood, from China, from Europe, from all over the world, and we want the audience to have that kind of big-screen, big-movie experience.”
Hussain Amarshi, the president of the Toronto-based independent distributor Mongrel Media, notes that the films themselves are only one element of a gala night at TIFF.
“Given the whole set-up of galas, so much of it is corporate-sponsored. You have people who pay extra to watch the red carpet from the glassed-in area of Roy Thomson,” he said.
“And the films tend to be not particularly edgy or controversial. Because with 2,000 people sitting at Roy Thomson, many of them are invitees of various corporate sponsors, so that sets the criteria for the kinds of films that seem to have been selected, historically, for the gala program.”
Still, Amarshi says he saw the power of the gala program when Deepa Mehta’s Water, which Mongrel distributed, made its world premiere at TIFF in 2005. “That was pure magic. Here was a Canadian film, in Hindi, given the opening night slot and we had a release scheduled two months later. That drove that film.” Water grossed more than $2-million at the Canadian box office, making it a verifiable hit in this country.
Bailey noted that success at the box office is a function of more than just the promotional pop a film gets at a festival. “What happens in the marketplace is subject to all kinds of factors: What company’s releasing them; when they’re releasing them; how widely; what kind of marketing budgets are put behind them.”
Amarshi says festivals are more valuable for sniffing out the organic audience buzz on films rather than trying to manufacture excitement that can evaporate as soon as the red carpets are rolled up. So, while Mongrel distributed the film which opened last year’s gala program, Borg vs. McEnroe (and later flopped at the North American box office, with only $231,000), it prefers to focus on the films in TIFF’s Special Presentations program.
“That program tends to go for more arthouse/smarthouse films, and the audience for those films tends to be cinephiles,” said Amarshi, whose 11 features at TIFF include the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters; Never Look Away, which will launch at the Venice Film Festival; and the world premiere of the globe-straddling Canadian climate-change documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.
“For us as distributors, what do we get out of playing a film at TIFF? It is the media attention that you get, but more importantly it’s that word-of-mouth from that keen, knowledgeable audience.”
Meanwhile, Bailey promises that the 2018 gala program is one of the best in years, with new films from Steve McQueen (Widows), Claire Denis (High Life), Damien Chazelle (First Man), Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits), Zhang Yimou (Shadow) and Jiang Wen (Hidden Man).
“These are major international directors, who have made significant contributions to cinema,” he said, noting that the festival has upgraded the Roy Thomson Hall facilities, doubling the size of the screen and adding a new Dolby 7.1-channel sound system.
“I wasn’t looking to calculate the box office returns on these films when we invited them. But I was looking for films that made significant statements in terms of cinema, and that I thought would work for the gala audience.”