Film Scouts Diaries

1999 Toronto Film Festival Diaries
Diary #1

by Henri Béhar

YOU KNOW YOU'RE IN CANADA WHEN... you take the elevator at the Four Seasons Hotel and the sign reads: "Kindly Refrain From Smoking"

Toronto - Thursday, September 9, 1999

The story has oft been told: one of the key elements that made the Toronto International Film Festival was the Hospitality Suite. Somewhere on the top floor of the hotel that was the Festival's headquarters during the event, there was a suite (actually several suites grouped together) stocked up with free drinks, free booze, free nibbles. Everybody gathered there - actors, directors, producers, journalists, patrons - everybody let it all hang out. What was said and done in the Hospitality Suite was strictly off the record, the understanding was tacit, but everybody abided by it. The Hospitality Suite no longer is; its spirit, however, remains. One would be hard put to find, anywhere in the world, a Festival of that size as convivial as this one.

Or as frustrating. 319 films are to be shown in ten days, 64 of them world-premieres and 171 North-American premieres. As is not always the case - not by a long shot - all of those films have been seen by the festival's team of programmers, and chosen for reasons they detail in the Festival catalogue. Their target is multifaceted; it encompasses film fans, critics and the entire movie industry. Some of the works will come out at your neighborhood cineplexes within weeks (the Hollywood stuff), a lot of them are here looking for buyers, and more than a few are pure discoveries. No way you can see them all, so you tend to focus on just a couple of sections. Ultimately, what is called "the Festival" is a maze of virtually separate festivals.

The section that gets the most attention is the Gala series at the Roy Thomson Hall downtown. Red carpet, flashing light bulbs, stars and all, this is Hollywood at its marketing best (and we use the word liberally). For more and more - and more and more unabashedly - Hollywood studios are using the Toronto Festival as a mass-marketing tool, a launching pad for the products they want to draw attention to. They bring in the stars, parade them on the gala's red carpet (and the obligatory party), then lock them up in some five-star hotel suites and herd in bunches of reporters (and here, too, we use the word liberally) for those dreaded junkets where scribes are corralled by fives or tens, the "talent" is rushed in, recites the five marketing lines from the press kit, then... Next! (apparently, the studios continue to wage their internecine, LA-based marketing war on a different battlefield. In many a case, they simply try to block journalists for their "talent", their movie. Pencils that the other studios won't get.)

In all honesty, being selected by the Toronto Festival lends a film a cachet of seriousness and gravity. The fare here is sometimes darker, more offbeat than one would expect, therefore more interesting. The kind of films that the Hollywood machine may not always know how to sell - and indeed, some of the works may require subtle repositioning so as not to appear to be "art films" (anathema for distributors). And so, among the (gala) films vying for attention, you will find such works as Lasse Halstrom's The Cider House Rules, based on John Irving's novel; Sam Mendes' American Beauty, with Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening; Wes Craven's Music of the Heart (the underlying message: Wes Craven is an auteur, not just the guy who made Scream 1 and Scream 2) and Pierre Kassowitz's Jakob the Liar (The Holocaust and Robin Williams in a Roberto Benigni-Life-is-beautiful mode).

In many instances we'll wait until those films come out at a mall near you and we'll focus on the unexpected, the original, the offbeat - the John Woos, Steve Soderberghs or Jean-Jacques Beinexes of tomorrow - whether the works have "names" attached to them (Bruce Willis/Nick Nolte-starrer Breakfast of the Champions comes to mind) or not.

Oops, gotta go, the screening of Fest opener, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey is about to begin. Later.

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