Toronto, TIFF, and the Oscar contenders

[T]here’s a reason that Hollywood A-listers and their movies flock to the Toronto International Film Festival every year, and it might not exactly have to do with our lovely city.

Sure, we’re friendly people. We give plenty of standing ovations and warm reception to the films that get selected. Our city has world class dining and accommodations to make any star feel welcome. And we definitely know how to throw a party. But the real reason directors, their movies, and the stars all come to the film festival is that sometime over the past 40 years, TIFF has become the stepping stone to an Oscar nomination.

For the past six years, a TIFF movie selection has gone on to win the coveted Best Picture title at the Academy Awards, starting with 2007’s selection of No Country for Old Men, and ending with last year’s Argo.

That might not mean much to some, considering the fact that many of the films first premiere over at the glitzy and glamorous Cannes Film Festival a few months earlier. However, if you want further proof of Toronto’s influence over the Oscars, we can instead look at the People’s Choice Award.

The People’s Choice Award is TIFF’s equivalent of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – or Best Picture. Unlike Cannes, TIFF has no selection jury; the People’s Choice Award is completely voted on by the audiences who attend TIFF and cast their ballot. In essence, it’s the citizens of Toronto who ultimately pick the People’s Choice winner. And Toronto has a great sense of what will win an Oscar.

The Numbers

[I]n the past 20 years, the People’s Choice winning film at TIFF has gone on to be nominated for at least one Oscar all but three times, giving Torontonians a pretty solid 70 per cent chance accuracy at selecting a film that will compete for an Academy Award.

The only three movies in the past 10 years to not receive any Oscar nominations have all been foreign language films: Where Do We Go Now (2010) made the long list for Lebanon’s Best Foreign Film selection but not the short; Bella (2006) featured an all-Latin cast; and Zatoichi was a Japanese samurai drama that won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival when it first premiered.

In the past 10 years, People’s Choice winners in total have garnered 42 different nominations, including 12 individual nominations for actors and actresses in both lead and supporting roles.

If you’re still skeptical about the power of TIFF, let’s look at 2008’s Oscar-claiming Slumdog Millionaire, which had its premiere at TIFF – at the Ryerson Theatre specifically — and won the People’s Choice. It was seen first in the United States at the Telluride Film Festival, before being selected for TIFF. The original plans for the film were to release it straight-to-DVD after Warner Independent Pictures shut down. Fox Searchlight Films ended up picking up the film, where it was then shown at the Telluride Film Festival along with TIFF. After spellbinding and captivating critics at the festival, Fox Searchlight put the film out for a limited release, where it has now gone on to make over $140 million at the North American box office. The film walked away with eight awards out of its 10 Oscar nominations – including Best Picture.

“It’s a very good place to launch to North American distributors in particular, and it’s quite often where you’ll make your US domestic sale,” said Sue Bruce-Smith, head of commercial and brand strategy at Film4, in an interview with BBC News at this year’s festival.

This year, 12 Year’s A Slave won the coveted TIFF prize.

“Maybe they should just move the Academy Awards to Toronto,” Chris Knight, the National Post’s chief film critic writes in a recent article as the festival has wound down.

That’s not such a bad idea.