From Buffalo Spree: How TIFF embraced change and ruled the 2018 festival scene

THE PREDATOR star Olivia Munn

My last TIFF piece each year is a round-up for the November Buffalo Spree. And so here we are, with my 2018 analysis.

It’s not easy being last one standing in the battle for fall film festival supremacy. The players are the Venice Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. Venice has a time advantage, coming first on the calendar. A few days later is the start of Telluride, and the fest has a laid-back vibe that separates it from the others. Lastly comes TIFF, the festival with size, scope, and worldwide media appeal that Telluride and Venice just cannot compete with.

Sometimes, Venice has come out on top. In recent years, Telluride is often the victor. But in 2018, TIFF did not just dominate—it destroyed. “Festival Street” on King, in front of home base the TIFF Bell Lightbox, was a hive of excitement. And, with a shocking number of world premieres, a marked focus on female filmmakers and gender equality issues, and an air of chin-held-high confidence, TIFF ruled. Here’s why.

More women, more diversity, onscreen and off

In a rather shameful display of ignorance, just one of the twenty-one entries in August’s Venice Film Festival was directed by a woman. The numbers improved at Telluride. But it was TIFF that went next-level, with more than thirty-five percent of the 200-plus films directed by women. Some of these played Telluride, Sundance, and other festivals, but others—from the likes of Clare Denis (High Life), Amma Asante (Where Hands Touch), Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits), and Mia Hansen-Løve (Maya)—were world premieres.

In addition, the festival held a well-attended “Share Her Journey” rally on September 8 with a focus on making real change in the industry. The impact should not be understated, on both audiences and filmmakers. At the premiere of her film Tell it to the Bees, director Annabel Jankel spoke of being inspired by the event’s speakers. Plus, TIFF made a concerted effort to increase diversity among accredited film critics and media.

These are small steps, but they led to a more diverse experience for paying attendees and those who cover the festival.

Hello, Netflix

The film festival world has not quite figured out what to do with Netflix. There is the Cannes approach, in which Netflix is the enemy. And then there is the approach of Telluride, Venice, and TIFF: bring ’em on. The opening night selection of TIFF18 was David Mackenzie’s historic epic Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine. That in itself is newsworthy—a film that will only be available to Netflix subscribers (in November) was the opening night pick at the world’s largest film festival.

Joining Outlaw King from the Netflix stable were biggies like Alfonso Cuarón’s hugely acclaimed Roma and much-buzzed thriller Hold the Dark. All three were hits with festival audiences.

Major world premieres, and lots of them

A number of TIFF’s most high-profile pics premiered in Venice, including Roma, Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, and the brilliantly entertaining A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. However, there was no shortage of major world premieres in Toronto. The list included Michael Moore’s Trump-focused Fahrenheit 11/9; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave follow-up, Widows, a tremendous heist film with real resonance; and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight follow-up, the exquisite and powerful James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk. And then there was the hotly anticipated Halloween, an affectionate sequel to John Carpenter’s horror classic. With just two screenings, it was the hottest ticket in town. The lucky folks who managed to snag one (including yours truly) got to see star Jamie Lee Curtis in person, and the celebratory atmosphere added greatly to the viewing experience.

The combined weight of these films was so mighty, in fact, that there was little upset over the biggies that skipped TIFF, among them horror remake Suspiria and Emma Stone-starrer The Favourite.

Starpower + lots of screenings = mega-buzz

TIFF can never be accused of not adding plenty of screenings for its most eagerly-awaited, star-heavy entries. Consider that First Man, for example, had more than ten (!) screenings, including both public and press, scheduled between September 9 and 16. Yes, Canada loves native son Ryan Gosling. Beautiful Boy, featuring festival favorite Timothée Chalamet, had five screenings. And there were several opportunities to see A Star Is Born. That was wise, since no film dominated conversation like that Gaga-gantuan smash.

Prices are up but the process is better

There has been grumbling in recent years about the rising cost of ticket prices at the festival, and they are indeed high—as much as $82 for some. And there was talk of the Ticketmaster-run festival ticketing site crashing repeatedly before proceedings kicked off on September 6. Maybe so, but the process of actually attending screenings has never seemed smoother. Many of the venues now have assigned seating, and surprisingly, that made seating quicker and easier. Plus, the oft-criticized Roy Thomson Hall unveiled a larger screen and improved sound.

What’s next?

In many ways, 2018 felt like a year of beginnings for TIFF. That’s a good thing. Longtime director and CEO Piers Handling will be missed, but he leaves the festival in the very capable hands of TIFF veteran Cameron Bailey and new hire Joana Vicente. There is no doubt they’ll continue to find ways to innovate, while—hopefully—not losing the elements that make the fest unique.

For eleven days, the festival hub on King Street felt like the cinematic capital of the world. With more than three million attendees and a seismic impact on pop culture, TIFF is stronger than ever before. See you next year.