From fledgling fest to heavyweight: TIFF turns 40

Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival and Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival attend the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 28, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic).

TORONTO – The Toronto International Film Festival turns 40 this year and with that milestone birthday comes 40-year-old angst.

The one-time upstart – originally snubbed by Hollywood bigwigs who deemed it a small-town affair – has become one of the industry’s biggest players, and as such, an easy target for criticism from all corners.

Depending on who you talk to, it’s either too big, too glitzy, or too exclusive.

Even those powerful Hollywood bigwigs were suddenly calling TIFF a bully last year, for demanding that films destined for coveted theatres and time slots premiere in Toronto.

“Americans!” festival CEO Piers Handling huffs, while recalling the brouhaha that forced TIFF to tame its stance this year.

“Which I thought was a bit ironic that they were calling us ‘imperialistic’ and ‘bullies.’ The Americans? Some of whom, by the way, were my closest friends.”

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Forty years ago, festival founders could only dream of such attention.

Back in 1976, when TIFF launched with the name Festival of Festivals, Hollywood studios feigned interest in the new Canadian showcase only to pull their films at the last minute, recalls co-founder Bill Marshall.

“The studios didn’t believe in film festivals, particularly not in Canada,” says Marshall, noting that changed when L.A. critics lauded the inaugural outing.

“So ’77 they all came back saying, ‘Oh, we’d really like to help you.’ They didn’t mean it, but they tried…. They gave us things they thought were dogs.”

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That included Lawrence Kasdan’s ensemble drama The Big Chill in 1983, a seemingly lightweight flick with a young cast including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline and William Hurt.

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“They thought that was going to be a dog and it got huge ovations here and went on to be the biggest movie of the year and win all the awards,” says Marshall.

“So that was the turning point.”

It’s hard to whittle down the most memorable moments – big and small – from TIFF’s almost 40 years.

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Former publicity boss Helga Stephenson, who would later become festival director in 1987, has plenty of great memories – and some not so good. Like the time she was punched at the door of the stately Elgin Theatre by a mob of fans desperate to see the controversy-plagued film In Praise of Older Women in 1978.

Handling shudders at the memory of a van full of film prints being stolen in 1991, forcing staff to find other movies to screen that day. He joined the festival in 1982 and was named director and CEO in 1994, when the movie marathon was redubbed the Toronto International Film Festival.

Then there were the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, which brought the festival to a temporary standstill as celebs including Close, David Lynch and Mark Wahlberg scrambled to return home.

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Today, artistic director Cameron Bailey is keen to keep things focused on TIFF’s future, like the new TV program called Primetime and a competitive section for emerging auteurs called Platform. He admits they struggled to find the right way to mark this year’s milestone.

“We weren’t sure at first because 40 is not 50, it’s not 25. It’s not one of those signature landmarks that people are used to in terms of marking their own lives,” says Bailey.

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“It’s still an important number. Somehow it had this other freight in terms of entering middle age somehow, or becoming a real grown-up.”

There’s no question TIFF has grown into a giant among festivals.

It’s synonymous with stars – A-listers George Clooney, Matt Damon, Sandra Bullock and Helen Mirren are among those who repeatedly venture north to promote their films – and a key launching pad for Academy Award campaigns.

It’s also synonymous with fans and red carpet mania – it’s not unusual for the biggest premieres to attract hundreds of onlookers clogging sidewalks and shattering eardrums with their screams.

But veteran festival-goer Angelo Iascone is not one of them. He laments such glitzy spectacles and the explosion of corporate and celeb-driven side events that threaten to overshadow smaller movies.

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“It went from being about the films to being about the celebrities,” grumbles the 64-year-old film fanatic, who has attended every festival since 1978.

“We’re lucky to have it, for sure. It’s still an event in the world and manages itself fairly well, but size has its own problems.”

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Back in the day, observers complained there weren’t enough celebrities, says Marshall, whose co-founders were Henk Van der Kolk and Dusty Cohl.

He and his team worked hard to court big names with unique incentives – intimate dinners with esteemed colleagues, and question-and-answer sessions with enthusiastic, knowledgeable fans.

“Most film festivals were frankly rubbish. They didn’t look after the talent, they didn’t look after the media, they didn’t care,” says Marshall.

Toronto film fans cared. Marshall says more than 35,000 people turned up that first year, when big gets included Jean-Charles Tacchella’s opener Cousin Cousine and a 90-second preview of King Kong.

“We would have had twice as many if I hadn’t been too dumb to think about repeat screenings,” Marshall chortles. “So we fixed that.”

Stephenson and Van der Kolk recall other early stumbling blocks: funding shortages when expected patrons backed out, a largely dismissive response from local media, and being dogged by Ontario censors especially miffed by the sex in George Kaczender’s In Praise of Older Women.

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“These were hysterical, unreasonable days at the Ontario censorship bureau,” says Stephenson, who notes the controversy sent droves of curious people to the screening, overwhelming the theatre.

Those who got in were treated to a smuggled, uncut version.

“Which of course was not kosher, whatsoever. But there you go,” shrugs Van der Kolk.

Fast forward to 2015 and Handling points to other battles that keep him busy, including efforts to clamp down on non-TIFF events that appear to piggyback on its draw.

“They could be potentially stealing dollars away from us – and we’re a charity as well and we need that money,” says Handling, citing a recent defunct music festival and guerilla marketing stunts as examples.

“We’ve done cease-and-desists, we have a legal department here. We try to be as gentle as we possibly can, but also as vigilant as we need to be.”

And then there’s the Telluride Film Festival, a rival showcase the weekend before TIFF that has stolen thunder in recent years by screening films that had been promised to Handling as world premieres.

“We were being publicly embarrassed a lot,” he says. “It just got to a certain point in time where we couldn’t deal with that.”

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Marshall dismisses such squabbles as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, insisting TIFF’s must-attend stature remains, as does its legacy of fostering a homegrown film industry.

TIFF expects as many as 500,000 people will experience its various events this year, including free festival programming, red carpet fan zones and a recently added street fair.

Van der Kolk agrees, crediting the festival with spawning today’s film schools, industry unions, and homegrown productions.

But he never imagined TIFF itself would grow this large.

“We weren’t setting out to make the world’s biggest and most successful film festival,” he says.

“We set out to make a festival so we could get some notice for the Canadian film industry…. And boy did it ever happen.”

The 40th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Sept. 10.

With files from Canadian Press reporters David Friend and Diana Mehta

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