Toronto Film Festival Emerges as Test Market for Oscars

Sony Pictures’ Tom Bernard has come to the Toronto International Film Festival every year since 1978. The event’s growing reputation as a barometer of Oscar potential has more film executives falling for its charms.

The 11-day event, which kicked off last night, had until recently lacked the cachet of Cannes, Venice and Berlin. The commercial and critical success of Oscar winners “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” following screenings in Toronto has changed that.

The festival attracts audiences more aligned with mainstream tastes, making screenings there a better gauge of a film’s commercial and critical chances. “Slumdog Millionaire,” about an Indian boy’s rise from poverty to game-show riches, won the biggest award in Toronto in 2008 before collecting eight Oscars. Two years later, “The King’s Speech” did the same at Tiff, as it’s known locally, and garnered four Academy Awards.

“You’ve got regular people that have shown up as if they’d gone to the multiplex,” said Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “You can feel the room, you can see if they get the jokes or the drama.”

Tiff is also a buying opportunity for movies that will play well in 2013, according to Ben Cotner, senior vice-president of acquisitions at Open Road Films, a distributor owned by the two largest U.S. cinema operators.

The festival’s range contributes to its appeal as well, offering thrillers alongside art-house fare, movie executives said.

Seller’s Market

“It’s a something-for-everyone festival, which is why buyers are drawn to it,” Cotner said. “The timing is really great for anybody looking for movies for the first two quarters of next year since there haven’t been any major festivals since Cannes.”

The festival’s alignment with Oscar season helps. Toronto begins as summer blockbusters end their theatrical runs and Hollywood gears up to release award hopefuls. In 2004, Academy Awards organizers moved their annual ceremony a month earlier to February, boosting Toronto’s appeal as a showcase.

“That move made Tiff the launching pad for the Oscar race,” Bernard said in a telephone interview.

This year’s is Toronto’s biggest yet, with 372 films from 72 countries, including 289 feature-length pictures, organizers said. The 10 biggest Oscar contenders, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, will be screened, according to, an industry website.

Spies, Children

Pictures expected to garner attention this year also include “Argo,” the story of a CIA operatives caught in Iran in 1979, and “Midnight’s Children,” the adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s 1980 novel of lives upended by India’s 1947 partition.

Open Road will use the festival to premiere “End of Watch,” a gritty story of two Los Angeles cops featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. The event kicked off last night with FilmDistrict’s “Looper,” a sci-fi thriller filmed partially in China, with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

“By tomorrow I’m moving on to full acquisition mode,” FilmDistrict CEO Peter Schlessel said in an interview yesterday. Schlessel has been coming to Toronto for 15 years and said he’s always amazed by the locals’ film awareness.

The festival’s success coincides with a resurgence in TV and film production in Toronto and Ontario. The value of projects shot in the province jumped 31 percent to a record C$1.26 billion ($1.28 billion) in 2011, helped by productions including the remake of sci-fi action movie “Total Recall,” according to the Ontario Media Development Corp.

Local Economy

Tiff generated about $170 million for the local economy in 2009, up from $67 million in 2003, according to a government-backed study. That should hit $200 million this year.

This year, the festival has attracted 4,006 industry delegates, a 5 percent increase from last year, according to the organizers. In 2011, more than 40 films were purchased for distribution.

All those dealmakers create a boon for restaurants, bars and hotels clustered around the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a five-story complex that includes five screens, a gallery and event space. The facility, finished in 2010, is now the festival’s centerpiece.

“We’re already serving a third more guests than normal, and once the festival starts we’re going to go from 300 a night to 600,” said Jason Bangerter, executive chef at the Lightbox’s two restaurants.

Hotels in Toronto also enjoy a jump in business during the festival, particularly those closest to the Lightbox.

“We’ve seen a huge spike in our numbers compared with when the festival was centered closer to Yorkville,” said Reetu Gupta, who oversees sales and marketing at the Hilton Garden Inn, around the corner from the Lightbox. “We have a lot more travelers coming in now just to visit the Lightbox. It’s become an attraction in itself people want to come see.”

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