Toronto International Film Festival is the most important film festival in North America as it opens the season of movie celebrations and the film business after a relatively quiet summer.
Taking place September 7 to the 17, screening are sold out to the huge numbers of the Canadians who go so far as to take their vacations just so they can watch movies. The festival's People's Choice Award has become a predictor of awards-season success. Past recipients of this audience accolade include La La Land, Room, 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and Silver Linings Playbook.
The film industry also comes looking to acquire the films that will become the hits of the awards season the following year. Talent agents show up looking for the newest talent. Publicists tout the talent in Red Carpet Galas. Film buyers and distributors look for their next films and sellers are eagerly looking to license them not only the films in the festival but all of their new films whether they are in the festival or not.
This de facto film market in the Hyatt Hotel lobby is just down the street from the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the official TIFF Film Center built on land donated by director Ivan Reitman whose parents came to Canada as immigrants and established a successful dry cleaning business which stood on this spot in the middle of the city. Around the corner is the Scotia Theater where a good part of the screenings for both public and industry take place. Just down the street The Red Carpet Galas take place at the Ryerson Theater. This year’s Opening Night Gala is Borg/ McEnroe, a Danish-Swedish-Finnish coproduction in English, Swedish, French telling the story of the epic rivalry between Swedish tennis legend Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and his greatest adversary, the brash American John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), which came to a head during the 1980 Wimbledon Championships.
Numerous parties are hosted by national film entities like Unifrance, who is proud to announce 50 films in the festival and is hosting a lounge and a cocktail party. Other entities hosting parties are the Germans, the Rotterdam Film Festival of the Netherlands, SXSW of Austin, Texas, the Brits, the Italians and others among the 74 countries who are proudly unveiling their newest and best features, docs and shorts.
Of the 252 feature films there are 147 world premieres, 19 international and 72 North American premieres. Eighty-six or 34% of the films are directed by women, a sign that women are slowly reaching parity.
In addition, 35 shorts from 30 countries in 16 languages have a strong presence from the Middle East and South America. Women directed 17 of the selections.
Notable this year is that 15 films were made in English by non-native English speakers such 55 Steps by Bille August, Submergence by Wim Wenders, Kings by Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Mustang), Beyond Words by Urszula Antoniak, The Mountain Between Us by Hany Abu-Assad (The Idol) and among others, Marrowbone, the directing debut of Sergio G. Sánchez, the Spanish screenwriter of The Orphanage and The Impossible, a psychological horror film in which four siblings seek refuge in an old home after the death of their mother, only to discover that the house has another, more sinister, inhabitant.
Also trending is that the films are more and more multilingual as well, a step toward naturalism in films depicting our mutli-cultural world. Fifteen films are in multiple languages, all using English and such languages Bemba and Nyanja in I am not a Witch, the U.K.-France coproduction which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival’s Director Fortnight this past summer. This part magic realist fable and part gendered social critique is the feature debut of female director Rungano Nyoni telling the story of a young girl who is banished from her village sent to a camp for exiled witches.
Another is the Dutch, English, Norwegian language film Disappearance/ Verdwijnen in which Dutch director Boudewijn Koole evokes Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata in his story about a globetrotting Norwegian photojournalist who returns home to attempt a reconciliation with her mother, a celebrated former concert pianist. Some others include Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft/ Ta peau si lisse in French and English, Daniel Kokotajlo’s U.K. film Apostasy in English and Urdu, Hostiles in English and Cheyenne.
Diversity is one of the signs of a well-rounded festival. In Toronto -- for those who like numbers -- 17 or 7% of the films are LGBTQ ; 13 or 5% are Asian or Asian Diaspora such as Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, about the Cambodian author and human rights activist Loung Ung who recounts the horrors she suffered under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge. The Rider by Chloé Zhao is about a Chinese American; Mina Shum’s Meditation Park is about Chinese Canadians with a stellar cast including Cheng Pei Pei, Sandra Oh, Tzi Ma, and Don McKellar, about a devoted wife and mother (Pei Pei) who is forced to reassess her reverence for her husband after she finds another woman’s thong in his laundry. Also there is Oh Lucy! a Japanese American story by Atsuko Hirayanagi that played in Cannes’ Critics Week this year, two Pakistani films, two Japanese films, two Indian films and single titles from Cambodia, China, Indonesia and So. Korea.
Twelve or 5% (half of what played last year) are African American films. African Jamaican this year is Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami directed by Sophie Fiennes. Speaking of celebrities, Sammy Davis Jr. is the subject of a doc called Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me.
Davis inspired African Americans with his showbiz successes and his alignment with Martin Luther King; he also baffled progressive admirers by campaigning for Nixon and going to Vietnam. He was a performer and a patriot, and as devoted to Judaism as he was to entertainment. For the uninitiated, who mainly think of Davis as the singer of "The Candy Man" and the butt of Rat Pack jokes, this film reveals the complexities of his career. Director Sam Pollard, accomplished editor and a long-time collaborator with Spike Lee, captures the high-wire-act tension that typified the performer's life along with insightful interviews with Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and others who knew Davis, and he offers a stunning array of archival performances.
Eight African films include four from South Africa, and one each from Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Kenya, and Nigeria.
The Middle East and North Africa (now called MENA) has 19 (8%) films which include four from Israel. Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (The Idol) is directing The Mountain Between Us, written by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe for 20th Century Fox about a surgeon (Idris Elba) and a journalist (Kate Winslet) who must rely on each other for survival when the small plane they share crashes in the wilderness. Three films are Palestinian, two are from Algeria, two from Egypt, two from Iraq. There are films from Iran, Lebanon, Morocco and a Kurdish movie.
Eight of the 21 Latino films are Argentinian. Four are Chilean, and of those, two are by the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. One of his two films is not at all Latino. Disobedience is about a woman who returns to her Orthodox Jewish home in England after the death of her rabbi father and stirs up controversy when she shows an interest in an old childhood friend. In A Fantastic Woman, which Sony Pictures Classics will release in the U.S. the Chilean director follows his 2013 Festival hit Gloria with this drama about a young transgender woman struggling with both her own grief and societal prejudice after the death of her middle-aged lover.. Other Latino films come this year from U.S., Bolivia, Surinam (formerly Dutch Guyana), Dominican Republic and Mexico. Three come from Brazil. Sergio & Sergei ,from Spain and Cuba, is in Spanish, English, Russian and tells about an amateur radio operator in Cuba who makes unexpected contact with stranded cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev as he observes the dissolution of his nation from orbit as the Soviet Union crumbles in 1991 in Cuban director Ernesto Daranas Serrano's comedic yet poignant reflection on how big events can impact ordinary lives.
There are two Jewish films and both are about Orthodox Jews, one in America the other in U.K., Eight Indigenous films include one from Australia, one Maori, one Cree, one Mohawk and one Cherokee. In English and Lakota, is directed by by Susanna White and stars Jessica Chastain in the true story of Catherine Weldon, a 19th-century Brooklyn artist who travelled to the Dakota Territory and became the confidante of legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull.
Sony Pictures Classics, the recognized leading distributor of art house fims in the U.S. have nine fims premiering with their eyes already on the Academy Awards Season in 2019. These are Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Paul McGuigan, Happy End,Michael Haneke, Cannes hit Loveless/ Nelyubov, Mark Felt - The Man Who Brought Down the White House by Peter Landesman, The Leisure Seeker by Paolo Virzì, A Fantastic Woman/ Una Mujer Fantástica by Sebastián Lelio, Sundance critics favorite Call Me By Your Name by Luca Guadagnino, Novitiate by Maggie Betts and The Rider by Chloé Zhao.
The controversial Netflix has six fims which include a television series.
We will be watching the films and listening to the gossip at parties and meetings to hear which films are being predicted as the coming year’s top arthouse films.
Want to get a head start on your competition? The Toronto By Numbers Report gives you an easy organizing tool of all TIFF films, sortable by international sales agents, U.S., Canada and other territorial distributors and by categories such as language, country, female directors, LGBTQ, African and its diaspora, Asia and diaspora, MENA, Jewish, Latino, Indigenous. And all titles are linked to the Toronto online catalog which includes screening times.
About Sydney Levine
Sydney Levine is an executive of longstanding in the international film business. She is a writer of the popular blog on international film business, SydneysBuzz which also has run on Indiewire, IMDbPro and IMDb since 2008 when Amazon acquired her twenty-five year old company FilmFinders. In 1988 Sydney created FilmFinders, the industry’s first database of worldwide features used by distributors, sales agents and festival programmers acquiring features. It became industry standard for organizing and tracking the rights-buying activities of the film business and was adopted by the Cannes Marché and developed into what today is called Cinando.com. She and her partner, Peter Belsito continue to provide consulting and strategic planning for producers, national film organizations and other educational initiatives in international film business at Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Germany's Deutsche Welle Akademie, Talents in Berlin, Sarajevo, and Guadalajara, EICTV the international film school in Los Banos, Cuba, Chapman University, UCLA Extension, Vilnius University, et. al. She organizes, moderates and participates in panel discussions on the international film business, as well as producing white paper research and reports on SydneysBuzz.com. Sydney works with the markets in Cannes and Berlin in administering buyers’ data for North America, Latin America and Asia and gives tours of the market to newcomers. She opens the Cannes Shorts Corner with a presentation on The International Film Circuit for shorts. She has currently completed a book about Latin American Film Financing published in Spanish by the Guadalajara University Press. The English version on the Iberoamerican Film Business will be published in the fall of 2016.
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