Toronto International Film Festival – a retrospective look at T.I.F.F.

Over forty years in the making, the Toronto International Film Festival has grown to become a star-studded, attention-getting, defining cultural and cinematic event each and every year. Over the decades, it has ballooned and shrunk in size and scope. It has been underestimated and oversaturated. All the while, TIFF has been working hard to balance indie films with blockbusters, Canadian content with global fare, and all the commercial and corporate interests seeking to join in on the fun.

TIFF is in a state of flux, looking to rebrand and redefine, as it has been for a few years now. It’s struggling to be unique; film festivals have grown in number, and a lot of cities want them. Festivals want world premieres and stars, and as more festivals join the fray, it’s harder to stand out. What’s more, TIFF works to laud and promote Canadian filmmakers, actors, and even companies and critics, though that’s not always where the money or attention is.

The Toronto Festival of Festivals was first launched in 1976, showcasing 127 films across 10 programs. While there was a time when the festival took place in trendy Yorkville, where high end restaurants, shops, and hotels reside, it was eventually moved south to the entertainment district. The event changed its name to TIFF in 1994, and it was only 10 years ago, in 2010, that TIFF created its own headquarters on King Street, where it held events, screened movies, and served as the central, active hub for all things film and festival.

What’s curious is that a lot of local critics and publications, as well as a consortium of Hollywood producers and distributors, were not on board in the beginning. The former didn’t understand the point, and the latter felt they were giving away films for free. The early years were wild, expansive fun and energized chaos. It was big from the start, and gained press and attention from novelty and controversy, whether it was liquor inspectors checking in on events or more sensual content coming from Europe. In Praise of Older Women was the opening gala film in 1976, and because there were threats of censorship due to the sexual content, it naturally was viewed by a sold-out show, with many more people in an almost riotous crowd trying to get in from outside.

In 1981, TIFF premiered its first film that would win both the People’s Choice Award and later the Best Picture Oscar winner in Chariots of Fire. A year later there was a Martin Scorsese retrospective, which seems a little early since he’s still earning nominations for Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars nearly forty years later.

The next couple of decades saw a focus on Canadian content and a lot of films from Hollywood that no one really knew what to expect from. In 1999, American Beauty won the People’s Choice Award at the fest and later the Best Picture Oscar, marking a second such feat. It was one of many examples of Hollywood distributors in the ’80s and ’90s not really knowing if a film was good or bad; early on in the fest they tried to send films they thought were worthless, only to see them succeed.

TIFF boomed in the 2000s, becoming a beacon of activity, a massive ten-day confluence of celebrities, auteurs, producers, critics, cinephiles, and tourists. The recent years have been most intriguing, however, as TIFF tries to navigate the changing media landscape. Easier access to global films, a surge of movies being made every year, and the intent of Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services to gain credibility, have all forced TIFF to consider what makes a film—and what makes a film worthy of inclusion. 

Most of the 2010s were fairly commercial, seeing TIFF cater to stars, huge premieres, red carpets, and box office draws. The opening night films from 2012 to 2016 were lackluster, male-driven stories with a lot of big-name actors. Looper, The Fifth Estate, The Judge, Demolition, and The Magnificent Seven played in those years, none of which were particularly memorable but featured a lot of A-List men. The next two years still saw more modest male fare, with Borg v. McEnroe and The Outlaw King kicking off the fest (though the latter was a Netflix film).

In 2017, TIFF took steps to narrow the focus of the festival; the year before it had featured a staggering 296 feature films and another 100 shorts. With that many films, the festival has no particular theme or focus, though it does certainly mean there is something for everyone. Still, there’s no chance anyone can come close to watching even a quarter of the films. Critics can’t cover enough; they start screening films two or three weeks in advance. In that extra time, combined with 10 days of festival, an enduring, avid critic can maybe watch 60 or 70, but a mental, physical, and emotional toll is certainly taken. And if the festival can’t properly shine a light on smaller releases and cull what is good from the masses, then it struggles to find a purpose as a cinematic entity.

The focus has narrowed since then, with about sixty fewer films in 2017; last year saw the feature film crop whittled down to a more reasonable 200 or so. The top three picks for the People’s Choice Award all were nominated for Best Picture (the second runner up ended up being the winner Parasite), which means the festival still acts as a preview for awards season. TIFF seems to have learned that fans will always come; stars will arrive; movies will be premiered; the festival will endure. It’s worth more to the festival and the city to find the quality films—which, by the way, can still enlist top stars—than go for those films that boast impressive casts and hope they turn out well.For most who enjoy the fest, and even those in the early days who didn’t know they would, it’s less about what the films are and who’s in them, and more about how compelling, innovative, and memorable those films are; you can’t force movies to be good (they tried and failed with St. Vincent promo initiative “Bill Murray Day” years back). TIFF doesn’t just welcome stars; it creates them. For many, the experience of being at a world premiere, enjoying a film for the very first time alongside other eager moviegoers, is special and unforgettable. And that’s where TIFF will always separate itself: finding success by catering to people who love film. All genres, from a wide range of voices from around the world—all coming to Toronto.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.