Toronto and Telluride lock horns over festival premieres

Posted by · 6:30 pm · January 29th, 2014

Festival programming can be a competitive business to begin with, but when you have three major international fests in close proximity, things are bound to get a little bit heated. So it is with Venice, Telluride and Toronto, the latter two of which actually overlap with the first — the whole marathon playing out over a condensed three-week period in late August and early September. And where Cannes gets to luxuriate in having May all to itself, there’s no such comfort for the autumn trio: given that they mark the unofficial start of awards season, getting first dibs on heavyweight titles (and the media coverage that comes with them) is of increasing importance to festival directors.

For a long time, Venice was the queen bee of the fall festival circuit, elevated by its age and European glamour. It’s still arguably the most prestigious of the bunch (not least since it’s the only one with juried awards), but Toronto long ago leapfrogged it in terms of industry attendance and standing — as Oscar jockeying shifted ever earlier in the season, and the Academy grew more open to independent fare in the mid-to-late 90s, launching prestige titles at Toronto became common practice. (“American Beauty” winning Best Picture after taking the Audience Award at Toronto was a significant trendsetter in this regard.)

As Toronto settled into its role as the prestige-crossover kingmaker, Venice retained its loftier art-film profile — the former still secured its share of big-name US premieres, while the latter still filched a number of Venice’s more specialized titles. They had a comfortable arrangement, even if Toronto’s move to overlap with Venice’s closing dayshad a negative impact on Lido attendance levels. Still, it became increasingly clear that both senior festivals had more to worry about in the form of Telluride, the bijou showcase festival in the Colorado mountains that began strictly as an insider event, but has recently stolen the big boys’ thunder as a launchpad for A-list projects.

Since Telluride’s lineup isn’t announced in advance, any previously unseen titles it secures are presented as “sneak previews” rather than “premieres” — a loophole that has allowed it to get a jump on titles promised as world premieres to its rival fests. Telluride has been stepping on Toronto’s toes for a few years, but last year they got aggressive with Venice too, beating them to the punch on such titles as Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known.” “12 Years a Slave” and “Prisoners,” both set to world premiere in Toronto, were unveiled at Telluride first; “Gravity,” which had its world premiere in Venice and was supposed to go straight on to Toronto, stopped off at Telluride in between.

Venice director Alberto Barbera made it known that he wasn’t impressed with Telluride’s actions, and vowed to prevent such occurrences in the future. “For next year, we will all have to be agreed on the ground rules: if a movie is in competition in Venice it has to screen here first,” he said.

At the time, Toronto seemed more sanguine about Telluride’s encroachment, but it turns out they, too, are taking action. Toronto director Cameron Bailey announced yesterday that the first four days of the festival — the busiest and most media-friendly stage — will feature only world premieres and North American premieres, with any film that has already screened at Telluride not permitted to play during that time. “Essentially, when we agree to and announce a premiere status, we want it to be real and to stick and not to have any surprises,” said Bailey.

It’s a compromise measure on Toronto’s part: not a wholly restrictive move, but one that will effectively force distributors to choose between a Telluride berth and a prime publicity slot at Toronto. Whether the effect will be a decrease in major Telluride premieres or a more back-loaded Toronto programme remains to be seen — either way, it’s probably good news for those craving a little more breathing room in that claustrophobic festival season.

Telluride director Julie Huntsinger, however, was unfazed by Bailey’s announcement, and insisted the festival has no intention of changing its “sneak preview” policy. She tells Variety: “The Telluride Film Festival has achieved its esteemed reputation with 40 years of dedication to a carefully curated program and a relaxed, no-hype environment where the filmmakers and the audience are placed first and foremost. We are committed to continue this effort in the same tradition we always have, with passion and integrity.”

It’s not hard to see why studios are drawn to Telluride over Toronto as a place to unveil sensitive prestige fare: it’s a festival with a smaller lineup and a smaller crowd, which makes it easier to generate some positive word of mouth ahead of its “official” premiere at the bigger, less forgiving fest. (Of course, that approach can also backfire for the wrong film: “Under the Skin” suffered some toxic early reviews at Telluride before rallying a bit in Venice, where its chilly formalist qualities were likelier to find a dedicated band of admirers.) But it’s also not hard to see why the bigger festivals are loath to let Telluride have this advantage: even a few days is a long time in festival terms, and the rapid spread of reviews online means a film can already seem old news — made or broken — by the time its formal world premiere rolls around.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the long run. Both Telluride and Toronto stand to score points off each each other if distributors are compelled to choose between them, while Venice might be the quiet beneficiary — with the North American festivals not bothered about a film premiering there first (and “Gravity” having proven that a Lido kick-off can still stands a major US awards hopeful in good stead), it may begin to seem a more attractive option again. Meanwhile, with New York pinching more and more high-profile premieres for itself (and even London getting the first look at “Saving Mr. Banks” last year), the fall festival season isn’t about to get any less noisy.

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