Destroy All Monsters: The Last TIFF
My time as an attendee of the Toronto International Film Festival has nicely overlapped the transition from Festival Then to Festival Now, which I'd argue has taken place over just about exactly the last fifteen years, the same period for which I've been a regular festival-goer.
Oh sure, I got press-ganged into a couple of rush screenings of flicks from Israel and Vietnam that I can't clearly recall at the 1996 festival, at the behest of a couple of York University film professors who probably hadn't completed their lesson plans and just wanted the students to fuck off for a few more weeks in September so they could catch up. But for the most part, I started attending TIFF in 1999, starting with Midnight Madness and working my way into the daytime program like a snake out of an egg. And 1999 was also the year TIFF figured out what it wanted to be, if only by accident.
It was the year American Beauty won the People's Choice award and went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards early the next year. There followed a surprisingly accurate run of People's Choice wins that moved along to somewhere on the Oscar stage - a run so eerie in its prescience that by the mid-2000s, many die-hard festival goers were openly accusing TIFF of ballot-stuffing.
The festival in 1999 established the target, and the potential. (This year's win by The Imitation Game will bear out, in nominations and awards through the end of February, and it all started right here in Toronto.) In the years since 1999, and nearly a decade past its rebranding as the former "Festival of Festivals," the newly minted TIFF could capitalize on the serendipity of its calendar slot (late in the year to accommodate that "festival of festivals" approach, bringing you the best of all the fests from winter, spring, and summer) to become the launch pad for the "serious" Hollywood content that would stump for Oscar consideration in the fourth quarter of the year.
It's ironic that it was the People's Choice Award that proved the engine for TIFF to de-prioritize its audience from its ambitions as an organization, or so it seems today. The largest public film festival in the world - unofficially minted "the people's festival" - TIFF's seeming value proposition had always been exactly that audience: cinephiles and regular folks who crammed into Toronto in September of each year to sweep the canvas of cinema from South Korea to Palestine, Iceland to Cameroon, along with the best of "serious" American cinema.
This gave the audience experience at TIFF a cachet it couldn't achieve at Cannes, where industry shenanigans rule. If a filmmaker wanted to connect with the warm centre of the moviegoing market for people who take films seriously, she or he could do it at TIFF. And as if in payment of that faith, the People's Choice Award (subsequently expanded to include special categories for docs and Midnight Madness) minted a film or handful of films with that audience's imprimatur - the people's imprimatur - of the best of the fest.
In that context, the poster campaign for the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival was notable for what was absent: the audience. Over the past several years, the festival's branding has pushed more and more towards how nifty it considers the red carpet experience to be, but this year's "THIS IS YOUR FILM FESTIVAL" slogan overlaid against images of stars, flashbulbs, and screaming red carpet crowds seemed, at best, gently mocking of the way things used to be. Not to get all "homework on a shovel" on this thing, but I remember a time when "This is your film festival" might have referenced the movies, and the watching of those movies.
Contextualize this against price increases of as much as 30% in many of the ticket packages, and a narrative begins to develop. No, the festival's stomach-churning $25 single ticket price hasn't increased much over the course of the last two years, but having successfully implemented My Choice ticket packs that allow groups of people to buy tickets together (ticket passes were beset by single-use restrictions until a few years ago), TIFF is now reeling in the advantage of that change, by presuming that everyone is buying tickets in bulk, and slaughtering the bulk buying advantage accordingly.
What does this do? Well, it pushes a certain kind of audience member out of the festival. Not all of them; not even, I assume, the particular kinds of audience members the festival is now focusing its efforts on attracting.
But a person who takes film seriously, builds a small vacation around TIFF, and wants to see, say, 20 or more films over the course of the ten days, is now paying as much for those 20 films as he was paying for 50, less than a decade ago. That's a gargantuan upswing in price, and as more and more major screenings turn unofficially "non-public" (perhaps "elite" would be a better word), available only to premium pass holders, Visa card bearers, or people with a couple grand to blow at the festival, the pressure on the TIFF audience's middle- and lower-classes is becoming intense.
If it seems this year like the festival's unofficial change to its mission statement - from "transform the way people see the world, through film" to "celebrities are cool, huh?" or something - resulted in a weaker, weirder year overall, 2014 also seemed like the year that the multi-faceted TIFF finally broke meaningfully into its component segments. The stars of Downton Abbey were here in Toronto this week, and so were the politics. This was TIFF's first truly "Upstairs/Downstairs" year.
I never saw festival bigwigs Piers Handling or Cameron Bailey in the flesh (hasn't happened in fifteen years of doing this), nor did I step inside any of the marquee venues; I shuffled back and forth between back screens of the Scotiabank Theatre and saw a series of foreign-language films that will never appear in any coverage in The Globe and Mail or on RogerEbert.com. "The other festival," basically; the one that doesn't involve Robert Downey Jr. or the presumption that anyone would want to stand near Robert Downey Jr.
But with the value gap widening between the $500 I paid to do this, and the $500 I would have paid for access to every type of screening I could lay my hands on as recently as 2007, I'm beginning to wonder if "the other festival" oughtn't take a page from Scotland's book and think about breaking away from the crown.
The festival will remind us that they have a number of low-cost alternatives for people who cannot afford the major passes; but there's something troubling about this as well, as the organization attempts to box its less-desirable customers into the second half of the week or the daytime screenings.
The gorging cinephile approach to this festival, where a fan sees dozens of movies over the course of ten days - I call it "Deep TIFF" - no longer seems to be the sort of experience that the organization is focused on providing, preferring instead to move prices and events into the luxury frame for a select demographic of buyers. TIFF must do what it must do in order to remain profitable, of course, and the cinephiles will find a way around - over, under, or through - as they always do.
But "the people's festival?" No, not for me. Not any more.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.