TORONTO – From sheep decked out in bowties and tiaras, to blow-up toys and Sacha Baron Cohen on a donkey cart, it’s clear the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program hasn’t lost its youthful whimsy in its 25-year history.
This year marks the silver jubilee of the late-night series that screens wild, intriguing and entertaining films from around the world — from dark comedies to martial arts and horror features — alongside riotous red-carpet pranks between midnight and around 2 a.m.
And with its rabid audience and candid moments, it’s become a coveted way for movie makers from around the world to connect with audiences on a special (and sometimes sleepy) level while also finding distribution deals.
“It’s a dream to premiere at Midnight Madness,” says horror maestro Eli Roth, who’s screened “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel” and “Aftershock” in Midnight Madness and returns to it again this year with his directing effort, “The Green Inferno.”
“The audience is amazing. Generally when you go to a film festival, a lot of the films are very serious, very dramatic, a lot of times you see people sleeping in films. And there’s just an air of electricity at Midnight Madness.
“It’s not pretentious. It’s pure fun.”
That fun began in 1988, when festival director Piers Handling and then-programmer Noah Cowan (now artistic director for TIFF Bell Lightbox) launched Midnight Madness as a platform for horror and genre films “that were kind of looked down upon,” says Colin Geddes, who has been programming the late-night series since ’97.
The program was initially “considered a bit of a ghetto” by some, he says, but that attitude soon changed when audiences realized it was a way to discover burgeoning talent.
Director Peter Jackson, for instance, screened his ’89 dark puppet comedy “Meet the Feebles” at Midnight Madness — well before he struck box-office gold with “The Lord of the Rings.”
And prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike found a North American audience with the program in ’97 and “now refers to his experience at Toronto as the highlight of his career,” says Geddes.
“Now we see that there’s more of an acceptance of these films in the mainstream and in the film festival world.”
Today, the program screens 10 films every year at the Ryerson Theatre, and has become a “hot spot” for distributors “to look for what movies to buy,” says Roth.
It’s also a fun entrypoint for younger audience members or festival newbies who perhaps might be intimidated by the more serious offerings in other programs.
“I refer to it as a gateway drug to the rest of the festival,” says Geddes.
Such was the case for Sachin Hingoo of Toronto.
The 33-year-old City of Toronto worker started attending TIFF in 2002 because of the Midnight Madness program and has devoted himself to it ever since, in recent years as both a patron and volunteer.
“It was a completely different experience from going to a normal movie,” he says. “It’s like a rock concert almost. People in the middle of the movie are cheering for scenes they like.”
Hingoo describes the bedtime-busting schedule as “an endurance contest” — one he organizes in an Excel spreadsheet and copes with by getting sleep wherever and whenever he can.
“I either go home and catch some sleep. Sometimes I will use my gym membership and take a shower in the middle of the day and just try and relax whenever I can.”
Geddes, who also programs the fest’s Vanguard program, has an assistant to help him get through the late hours.
“I always tell them, their first duty is to make sure that I eat regularly, because I can just get caught up in the adrenalin of it all,” he says.
When choosing films for the program, Geddes says he considers that the audience will likely have been up all day watching films.
“So it’s my mission to wake them up. I have to deliver a film that has something which grabs them, something that pops in the first 15 minutes and keeps their attention until 2 a.m.
“Also within that, I also have to pick films that are new and fresh. I’m not going to just show the same old action film or the same old zombie film.”
While the focus is on spotlighting the more unknown directors who are poised to make a breakthrough, Geddes does like to schedule one tentpole film every year, a move that’s drawn in some big names.
Last year, for instance, director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) was there with the cast of his film “Seven Psychopaths” (Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Woody Harrelson).
And who can forget 2006, when Baron Cohen arrived on the red carpet in a donkey cart drawn by faux Kazakhstani women for the premiere of “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
The antics continued when, 20 minutes into the screening, the projector broke and Baron Cohen (in character as Borat) jumped onstage with Geddes to do an impromptu Q&A. Filmmaker Michael Moore, who happened to be in the audience, also joined in.
“It was a disaster at first and it just turned into an event, which you could never replicate, which was so unique and so special,” says Geddes.
That same year, a small herd of sheep wearing bowties and tiaras walked the Midnight Madness red carpet for the screening of the New Zealand horror film “Black Sheep.”
Other zany moments in the program over the years include the 2011 screening of Katsuhito Ishii’s “Smuggler.” A technical issue delayed the start of the film for about 40 minutes, so comedian Bobcat Goldthwait (who happened to be in the audience) went onstage and did a comedy set.
And in 2010, director Michael Dowse and his “Fubar II” cast drove up to the film’s red-carpet premiere on a flatbed truck with strippers, a bagpiper and a rock ‘n’ roll band.
“I look back fondly on that night,” says Dowse. “I think what’s nice about Midnight Madness is, I think it sort of steps above some of the other programming, just because there’s limited slots and it’s a very specific thing to get in there.”
Then there’s the fan-driven annual tradition of tossing around inflatable toys — from beach balls to dolls and sharks — in the audience before screenings.
“It’s always a surprise whatever the audience brings,” says Geddes. “When people get into that auditorium, there’s just a really great energy, and that’s what our guests always compliment — about how everyone’s excited to see the films and there’s a great energy and everyone’s kind of rowdy, but then as soon as the film starts, everyone’s dead quiet and respectful.”
Roth first got a sense of that energy when he screened “Cabin Fever” at the program’s former venue, the Uptown Theatre.
“Colin Geddes said, ‘Come here,’ and I stood at the top of the stairs and it was like standing in the middle of the buffalo stampede of ‘Dances With Wolves,’ this onslaught of a hundred fans charged up the stairs to get the seats,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
He now loves the program so much, he made it a goal to premiere “The Green Inferno” in it.
“I want everybody to see it in the theatre with the Midnight Madness crowd. It’s hugely important to me.”
Beyond that zeal also lies a “sophisticated” audience that’s one of the most important at TIFF, says festival co-director Cameron Bailey.
“These are often the people who know movies intimately, who live and breathe movies, and they want to see whatever is latest on the genre front.”
And despite the slumbersome screening times, “the audience has really surprised the directors on the level of intelligence and cinephile knowledge they have when they’re engaging them in questions,” says Geddes.
The directors are just as happy to stay up for the Q&As, he adds, noting 73-year-old George A. Romero was “thrilled” to chat about “Survival of the Dead” at 2 o’clock in the morning back in 2009.
“They’re really proud of their work, and Midnight Madness has now got this reputation, so they know that they’re entering an alumni of other great directors and other great works.”
Other films in this year’s Midnight Madness include the sex fantasy “R100” from Japan’s Hitoshi Matsumoto, who’s coming to North America for the first time; and Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson’s “All Cheerleaders Die,” which will open the program.
The program also includes Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono’s “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” and the debut feature of Hong Kong pop singer Juno Mak, “Rigor Mortis.”
The Toronto film fest runs Sept. 5 to 15.