Magazine article Variety

Fall Festicuffs

Magazine article Variety

Fall Festicuffs

Article excerpt

Healthy, even heated competition between film festivals is nothing new. Cannes was founded in the late '30s as the French response to Venice. In recent years, Shanghai has felt the heat from the government-backed Beijing, while both SXSW and TYibeca have sought to position themselves as viable alternatives to Sundance.

Rarely, however, have such tensions spiked quite so visibly, or with such high stakes involved, as in the case of Telluride and Toronto.

Nestled deep in the Rocky Mountains, the 41-year-old Telluride Film Festival is an intimate four-day affair that screens a highly selective program for Hollywood elites and deep-pocketed movie buffs. The 39-year-old Toronto Film Festival is an 11-day press and industry behemoth, Byzantine in its complexity and Canadian in its efficiency, which unspools around 300 features and attracts journalists, publicists, filmmakers and dealmakers from all over the world. Two very different events, forced by the vagaries of art, commerce and the fall calendar must share many of the same movies, including coveted titles that will go on to win Academy Awards.

Because it comes first, Telluride has beaten Toronto to the punch on four of the past six Oscar winners for best picture - "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008), "The King's Speech" (2010), "Argo" (2012) and "12 Years a Slave" (2013) - plus a number of Oscar bridesmaids like "127 Hours." "Up in the Air" and "The Descendants." These pictures drew early praise and awards predictions from an audience that, while much smaller and less press-packed than Toronto's, has included a number of influential tastemakers over the years - from critics like the late Roger Ebert and the New York Times' A.O. Scott, to Oscar bloggers like Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, Sasha Stone of Awards Daily and Kristopher Thpley of HitFix.

"Telluride used to be a much quieter grassroots thing where the press would go and very quietly start to talk about your movie." says Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution at Warner Bros. "And now it's become much more of a first-out-ofthe-gate positioning festival."

That shrewd combo of high-altitude exclusivity and Oscar-hype machinery has allowed Telluride to present itself as an insiders' event with more class and clout than its bigger, more corporatized rivals.

The narrative reached a climax of sorts last year with Telluride's five-day 40th-anniversary deluxe edition, which included the first screenings of "12 Years a Slave," generating rapturous acclaim and through-the-roof Oscar buzz a full week ahead of its scheduled appearance at Toronto. Adding insult to injury, Telluride also snagged pre-Toronto berths for "Gravity," "Prisoners," "Blue Is the Warmest Color" and "The Past," plus exclusive North American premieres of three acclaimed Cannes titles - "All Is Lost," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Nebraska" - that skipped Toronto altogether.

So it came as little surprise that Toronto decided to get tough. In January, artistic director Cameron Bailey announced that, from now on, only world premieres and North American premieres would be permitted to screen during Toronto's first four days - that all-important window when attendance is at peak levels and the media blitzkrieg is in full force. The message Bailey was sending to Toronto hopefuls was clear: You can still go to Telluride, but there will be consequences.

While the new policy has drawn no shortage of grumbling - accompanied by near-total radio silence from Telluride - Bailey says that overall reaction has been "overwhelmingly positive." From his standpoint, scheduling those Telluride-bound titles during the second half of Toronto represents a principled alternative to not showing them at all. It may even address the common complaint that Toronto has become too front-loaded over the years; by distributing key titles more evenly across the 11-day time frame, the festival might just become manageable enough to encourage attendees to stay longer. …

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