How TIFF Became an Oscar Contender

No one from Hollywood paid attention to the little fest up north — and then came “American Beauty”

Last Updated: September 8, 2010 @ 5:48 PM

In the beginning, the founders of the upstart Festival of Festivals, could not even get Hollywood to pay attention to their little film festival in Toronto.

No one from the major studios paid attention as Bill Marshall, Dusty Cohl, and Henk Van der Kolk created their fall film extravaganza.

It was only after the premiere of “Midnight Express” (1978), which would garner international attention and two Academy Awards, that the festival began to be taken seriously. Gradually, Hollywood took note — bringing “The Big Chill” (1983) and “Places in the Heart” (1984) to Toronto before those films moved on to Oscar nominations and awards.

Then “American Beauty” (1999) changed everything for TIFF — and TIFF changed everything for that DreamWorks film.

The picture arrived in Toronto with little fanfare, and a studio that did not quite understand what to do with it or how to promote it. But within hours of its screening, it became the toast of the festival. Kevin Spacey's performance became the one to beat for the Academy Award, Annette Bening seemed on track to win Best Actress, and the film had no real competition for Best Film.

Exploding out of TIFF, “American Beauty” would coast all the way to five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, instantly elevating TIFF to an Oscar launching pad.

In fact, the Oscars 1999 turned into something of a TIFF reunion, with “American Beauty” winning its three, HIlary Swank grabbing Best Actress for another TIFF film, “Boys Don't Cry,” while Michael Caine took Best Supporting Actor for “The Cider House Rules,” a popular TIFF Gala!!

In the years since, 18 films have left TIFF to go on to nominations for the Academy Award as Best Picture

I remember “Lost in Translation” (2003), which screened without a lot being known about it other than Sofia Coppola had written the film and role for Bill Murray. The day after the screening, it was apparent it was going to be a major Oscar contender and one-time funny man Murray might win an Oscar. More important, it was evident that Francis' little girl had survived the debacle of “The Godfather Part III” and while it didn’t make Best Picture, it earned the first directing nomination for an American woman.

“Crash” (2005) was different because it had screened the year previous and was not released until 2005. While the film was admired at TIFF, there was little that suggested it would stun Hollywood with an Oscar win the subsequent year.

On the other hand, the madness surrounding “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) was extraordinary. Danny Boyle became the hottest interview, and suddenly his film was the film to see. On Oscar night it collected eight Oscars including Best Picture, trouncing all comers in the long journey from TIFF to the Oscars.

Like “Crash,” (2005), “The Hurt Locker” (2009) had actually screened at TIFF 2008, but not been released until 2009. The film was a surprise winner for Best Picture despite the adoration of film critics and the many pre-Oscar awards it collected on its way to Oscar night. Certainly no one at TIFF 2008 was predicting an Oscar win for “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and director Kathryn Bigelow.