Why TIFF Matters: A Guide to One of the Year’s Biggest Film Festivals

     September 5, 2017

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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is almost here, which means Adam Chitwood, Steve Weintraub, and I are once again headed to Toronto to see a ridiculous amount of movies in a relatively short amount of time. We’re going to be doing a whole bunch of reviews and interviews while we’re there, and if you follow us on Twitter, you’re going to be seeing #TIFF17 in a lot of our tweets. Much like Sundance, TIFF dominates our lives for about a week, but it’s a very different festival and showcases a different kind of film.

So why is TIFF such a big deal? For starters, TIFF is pretty much the launching ground for the award season. While you don’t have to play at TIFF to get an Oscar nomination, if you want to win Best Picture, TIFF is a good place to be. Nine of the last ten Best Picture winners played at TIFF (the outlier was Birdman, which debuted at the New York Film Festival) because TIFF is a good place to build substantive buzz without shining a spotlight that’s too harsh. If you can pick up some critical consensus at TIFF, you’ve got a good foundation when it comes time to market the movie later in the fall to a general audience.

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Image via A24

To be fair, TIFF is part of a string of festivals that litter the fall landscape, and it’s not the first major. That would be Venice, which along with Telluride, functions as kind of a soft opening for these movies. Venice and Telluride are a little too pricey for most American critics to attend, but TIFF, with Toronto’s excellent public transportation and selection of places to stay, can hold the most people. That’s not to say Venice and Telluride are unimportant, and right now you can find plenty of Oscar bloggers leaving from Telluride to head to TIFF, but those festivals aren’t enough for a movie to break out big. If anything, they can help build buzz so that critics at TIFF can make sure to see a movie or maybe rearrange their schedule.

But once a movie is at TIFF, it has to sink or swim on its own. It’s kind of remarkable how fast a movie’s fortunes can rise or fall based on reaction at TIFF. A movie can look like it has all the pieces for an Oscar run—prestigious director, top-notch cast, important subject matter—but if it receives even a lukewarm response, a studio could quickly go searching for another movie to make another run at the Oscars. While the potential for a movie to “breakout” is much less likely than at a festival like Sundance where most of the movies are unknown, there’s still room for an underdog to make a splash like we saw last year with Moonlight.

TIFF also functions a bit like a double-edged sword. If the buzz on a film goes off the charts, it’s almost certainly setting itself up for some backlash. This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s just something that happens. A group of critics gets a first look at a movie, they go nuts for it, they rave about it for three months, and then when everyone else gets a look at it, they go “Really?” Critics adored La La Land when it played at TIFF, and that probably set it up for a bit of a harsher appraisal when it hit theaters in December. It’s a tricky balance where you don’t want the Oscars to look like a coronation, but you also want time to solidify your place at the frontrunner.

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Image via Lionsgate

However, TIFF isn’t just the starting place for the Oscar game. It’s a place where there’s a ridiculous amount of legitimately good movies. Part of the reason an Oscar race even emerges is because it’s not like just one good movie plays at the festival. Last year, my Top 10 list included Arrival, La La Land, and Moonlight, all movies I saw at TIFF. The year before that Anomalisa and Spotlight, movies I saw at TIFF, landed on my Top 10. When the festival is able to collect so many new movies from such talented filmmakers, it only stands to reason that you’re going to fall in love with multiple movies you see there.

And 2017 looks no different. This year will offer new films from Guillermo del Toro, Alexander Payne, George Clooney, Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton, Joe Wright, Aaron Sorkin, Haifaa Al-Mansour, Dan Gilroy, and many more. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and while there will inevitably be disappointments, there are also going to be movies that end up defining the rest of the year and early 2018.

So if you want to be ahead of the curve, now’s the time to get on board. TIFF is almost here.

The 2017 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 7 – 17th. Click here for all of our coverage.

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