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Oscar Buzz Starts at the Toronto International Film Festival

With hundreds of thousands of people in attendance in a regular year, TIFF has an advantage that few stops in the awards circuit do: audiences. Located in downtown Toronto and drawing a huge crowd of locals in addition to the global press, TIFF has an enormous value to filmmakers and studios because it demonstrates early on just how well these films will play for a crowd.

That audience influence also results in TIFF’s biggest awards-season impact, the People’s Choice Award. (Or the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, if you prefer its biblical name.) The awards race can often overshadow the role that moviegoers play in establishing front-runners, but here TIFF only highlights it. The prize comes with an undeniable track record: In the past 25 years, 16 of the prize winners have gone on to be best-picture nominees, with only four missing out on Oscar entirely.

Even films that may seem too “risky” or “arty” for an Oscar can be embraced by TIFF audiences, and put on a glide path from there. Initial skeptics of the intimate and quiet Nomadland’s Oscar chances were proven wrong early last year when the film took the audience prize. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri too divisive, abrasive, and dark? Nope, it won too. Green Book arrived very quietly at 2018’s TIFF, debuting days after most of the more hotly anticipated films, and became an unpredictable winner previously on few prognosticators’ radars. You can position a film for awards, but (for better or worse) moviegoers don’t lie about what they like—and at TIFF, it has a real impact.

The modern era of the People’s Choice–to–best picture pipeline started in 1999, when American Beauty took home both awards. The film is so integral to TIFF history that in 2012 Jason Reitman held a live reading of its screenplay, with its plastic-bag-enamored teen played by Adam Driver.

But Chariots of Fire was actually the first film to win both, back in 1981; subsequent best-picture nominees The Big Chill, Places in the Heart, Shine, and Life Is Beautiful got the TIFF stamp of approval as well. And it’s after 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire that the streak really gets started; since that year only one People’s Choice winner (Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?) has missed a best-picture Oscar nomination. In her best-actress acceptance speech for 2015 People’s Choice Winner Room, Brie Larson even remembered to thank TIFF.

So it’s not just best-picture buzz that kicks into overdrive at TIFF. In 2014, the two best-actress contenders that earned the most ink over the season premiered in the same afternoon, immediately igniting awards talk despite no such buzz in advance: the eventual winner, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, and the category’s biggest snub, Jennifer Aniston in Cake. (TIFF’s People’s Choice Award has an even higher track record of films that have won acting Oscars than those that have won best picture.) The McConaissance crystallized at 2013’s festival when Dallas Buyers Club world-premiered and quickly established Matthew McConaughey as the best-actor front-runner in a highly competitive year. I, Tonya did the same for long-beloved but never-before-nominated Allison Janney.

TIFF has also recently instituted its Tribute Awards, which in recent years have honored such eventual Oscar winners as Anthony Hopkins, Chloé Zhao, and Joaquin Phoenix. This year’s honorees Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), and Denis Villeneuve (Dune) likely hope to follow that same path.

But TIFF’s massive scale, with hundreds of titles most years, also creates a sink-or-swim environment, turning hot titles into belly flops faster than Faye Dunaway can say “La La Land.” For every organic festival surprise success like Slumdog Millionaire, there are always a handful of anticipated hopefuls that crater. There’s one seemingly every year: Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut and Philip Roth adaptation American Pastoral (2016), the Bill Murray old-rascal vehicle St. Vincent (2014), Dan Fogelman’s weepy miasma Life Itself (2018), and Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men remake (2006), just to name the most famous ones. Even (perhaps especially) for films early predicted or positioned for awards, TIFF can be a tough gauntlet that takes no prisoners.

This year the biggest hopefuls seem to be Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, all of which head to TIFF with momentum that began at other festivals. But TIFF will also launch a handful of world premieres with awards in their sights. The first film to face the music (and either dispel or solidify naysaying about its star Ben Platt’s age-appropriateness for his former Tony-winning role) is opening-night film Dear Evan Hansen. This year’s potential heavy hitters also include Jessica Chastain as the iconic televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Netflix’s Jake Gyllenhaal–led remake The Guilty, and A24’s adaptation of Broadway smash The Humans.

But which of the festival’s selected films will kick-start their Oscars run and which will have their ambitions shattered? Only time and several thousand Canadians will tell.


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