Last year, the Toronto International Film Festival opened with a sucker punch to the industry, kicking off its 43rd edition with a Netflix production. Forget for the moment that the film itself (the historical action epic Outlaw King) was forgettable − the decision for one of the world’s biggest and splashiest film festival to spotlight a movie that wouldn’t be seen on all that many movie screens will go down as a defining moment in Hollywood’s existential war over what is and what isn’t a film.
So, what’s changed since the previous TIFF? A tiny little bit of everything, but also not nearly enough.
Theatre owners are still locked in a death match with Netflix, with both sides refusing to budge over the time between when Netflix movies open in theatres and when they’re available to stream worldwide (the big theatre chains want a 90-day window; Netflix says more like three weeks). Netflix productions are still playing TIFF (eight this year, nine if you count A24′s Adam Sandler heist film Uncut Gems, for which Netflix is handling international distribution), in addition to titles from Amazon Studios and Canadian streaming competitor Crave (including the opening night documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band).
Each side of the debate is convinced that it is in the right − not, necessarily, that it’s working in the best interests of cinema − and each side will likely walk out of Toronto with its mind unchanged.
Away from the streaming debate, though, TIFF is set to be the staging ground for a handful of other, equally pressing industry narratives that threaten to upend how and what movies are made, and for whom.
First, there’s the impending death of the independent film market. As journalist Richard Rushfield noted last week in his insider-baseball newsletter The Ankler, there’s increasingly little return on investment for the types of films that festivals such as TIFF and, to a larger degree, Sundance once specialized in: unexpected little surprises à la Little Miss Sunshine that swooped into festivals, built buzz and instantly became hot acquisitions by Oscar-thirsty distributors looking to impress adult audiences uninterested in blockbuster fare. This year has already witnessed the crash and burn of such indie acquisition titles as Late Night, Blinded By the Light and, this past weekend, Brittany Runs a Marathon − and there’s little reason to think that the market will turn around this fall.
At the same time, the major studios are galloping away from anything they cannot franchise. While Warner Bros. is coming to Toronto with an impressive looking adult-oriented slate − including the Edward Norton thriller Motherless Brooklyn, the star-heavy adaptation of The Goldfinch and the Michael B. Jordan legal drama Just Mercy, the latter as good as any bet for the fest’s People’s Choice Award − it is also hoping to generate the most noise with Joker, a property that audiences know all too well.
Judging by its TIFF lineup this year, Fox Searchlight could be discerning audiences’ best hope for decently budgeted, semi-original films (its festival titles this year include Taika Waititi’s satire Jojo Rabbit, the Natalie Portman NASA drama Lucy in the Sky, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield and Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life). But Fox is also, as of earlier this year, under the Disney corporate umbrella. It is anyone’s guess how long that behemoth will continue to spare the relative pocket change needed to keep Searchlight’s art-minded aspirations feasible.
Meanwhile, in the tiny corner where the Canadian film industry operates, there are tremors of change, too. Last month, Toronto distributor and production company D Films (responsible for TIFF 2018 selections Sharkwater Extinction and Through Black Spruce) went into receivership. A few days later, the Toronto-based Entertainment One, which is entering TIFF with just a handful of films compared with previous years, was acquired by toy giant Hasbro for US$4-billion. And the Canadian art-house distributor Mongrel Media is, with the TIFF premiere of murder-mystery Knives Out, entering into a curious partnership with the struggling U.S. studio Lionsgate and the Canadian theatre giant Cineplex Entertainment.
The shifting landscape can even be felt inside TIFF itself, which is heading into its 44th edition with new leadership (co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey leading things for the first time), a wealth of new faces deciding which films get programmed and a new gala fundraiser that itself walks the line between honouring the artistry of cinema and the appeal of a franchise-dependent industry (where else would French filmmaker Mati Diop be feted alongside Joaquin Phoenix, in town to promote Joker?).
At its best, TIFF acts as a refuge for audiences seeking attention from an industry that increasingly doesn’t have time for them. And this year’s promising lineup − from Almodovar to Zellweger − makes it easy to trick ourselves into feeling optimistic about the future of cinema all over again. But on the eve of TIFF 2019, the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty. May we’ll all feel more confident in 11 days time.
The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5-15 (tiff.net)