TIFF’s prize prob­lem

The fest just an­nounced the au­gust jury for its award. But does win­ning the thing ac­tu­ally help a movie out?


Last week, as tout le me­dia was gath­ered on the Croisette for an­other red-car­pet pre­miere, the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val made a bid to steal a little of that lush Cannes spot­light, nam­ing TIFF 2018’s Plat­form jury.

Lee Chang-dong, Béla Tarr and Mar­garethe von Trotta will judge as many as 12 films at this year’s fes­ti­val. The di­rec­tor of the win­ning film will re­ceive a $25,000 cash prize.

The Plat­form pro­gram won’t be an­nounced un­til Au­gust, so we have no idea what films that jury will be see­ing.

All we know is that they’ll be world pre­mieres of “high artis­tic merit that also demon­strate a strong di­rec­to­rial vi­sion,” per TIFF’s de­scrip­tion.

Right now Piers Han­dling, TIFF’s di­rec­tor and the sec­tion’s sole pro­gram­mer, is prob­a­bly screen­ing rough cuts and talk­ing to film­mak­ers about what may or may not be ready – and what they might be will­ing to hold back from com­pet­ing fes­ti­vals in Venice or Tel­luride.

This will mark Plat­form’s fourth year; pre­vi­ous win­ners are last year’s Sweet Coun­try, 2016’s Jackie and 2015’s Hurt. And for all my crank­ing about

TIFF try­ing to grab at­ten­tion dur­ing Cannes, it clearly worked: we’re talk­ing about it right now, aren’t we?

But to ask the re­ally awk­ward ques­tion: does win­ning the Plat­form prize ac­tu­ally help a movie find an au­di­ence? I asked Alan Zweig, who won the very first Plat­form com­pe­ti­tion with his Steve Fonyo doc­u­men­tary Hurt.

“I know that peo­ple in Toronto think that, given that the prize was given by Claire De­nis and Ag­nieszka Holland, Hurt must have burned up the Euro­pean film cir­cuit,” he says with his sig­na­ture pes­simism. “As far as fes­ti­vals and dis­tri­bu­tion, it’s not my least suc­cess­ful film … but it’s on the bot­tom with the rest of them.”

That said, win­ning the Palme d’Or at Cannes is no guar­an­tee of com­mer­cial suc­cess ei­ther. But what­ever film wins this year will have the ca­chet of be­ing cho­sen by a jury headed by Cate Blanchett, and in­clud­ing Ava DuVer­nay, Kris­ten Ste­wart, De­nis Vil­leneuve and Rus­sian mas­ter An­drey Zvyag­int­sev – for­mi­da­ble artists at the top of their re­spec­tive games.

They are also a rel­a­tively young group, whereas this year’s Plat­form ju­rors are… well, they’re mas­ters of cinema, but they’re also kind of old. (The youngest mem­ber of this year’s jury turns 63 in July.) It’s weird to see TIFF es­tab­lish a pro­gram ded­i­cated to emerg­ing cin­e­matic tal­ent and then stack the jury with el­der states­peo­ple.

Maybe there’ll be an un­de­ni­able mas­ter­piece in the lineup, like Barry Jenk­ins’s Moon­light, which was part of the 2016 com­pe­ti­tion. Oh, but wait: Moon­light didn’t win that year. Ju­rors Brian De Palma, Ma­hamat Saleh Haroun and Zhang Ziyi went for Pablo Lar­raín’s mud­dled death-of-Camelot drama Jackie in­stead. At least Natalie Portman got an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for it. Who knows what might emerge from this year’s se­lec­tion?

Hon­estly, it’s still a little strange to see TIFF go­ing so hard for a com­pet­i­tive pro­gram. Al­though the fes­ti­val has long hosted ju­ries for Cana­dian fea­tures and shorts, as well as the in­ter­na­tional crit­ics’ prizes handed out by FIPRESCI, it’s spent decades es­tab­lish­ing the Peo­ple’s Choice award as its high­est hon­our, even ag­gres­sively draw­ing the line be­tween the top prize and the Os­car for best pic­ture.

Over the years, the Peo­ple’s Choice award has ac­quired so much ca­chet that TIFF added two more of them, for doc­u­men­taries and films in the Mid­night Mad­ness pro­gram, in 2009. And it’s not just an empty ges­ture; th­ese prizes re­ally mat­ter to the au­di­ence. I’ve at­tended screen­ings where peo­ple rushed to put their tick­ets in the bal­lot boxes im­me­di­ately afterward, and the rush­line chat­ter in the last few days of the fes­ti­val al­ways in­cludes a little spec­u­la­tion about what will win the prize.

I have yet to hear that much ex­cite­ment about the Plat­form con­tenders out­side of crit­i­cal cir­cles, though that’s par­tially be­cause the films pro­grammed in Plat­form rarely spark larger con­ver­sa­tions sight un­seen.

Last year, Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s The Death Of Stalin was both a crowd­pleas­ing com­edy and a crit­i­cal suc­cess, but it was the only ti­tle in the pro­gram to break out at the fes­ti­val – and judges Chen Kaige, Mał­gorzata Szu­mowska and Wim Wen­ders went for War­wick Thorn­ton’s re­vi­sion­ist Aus­tralian west­ern Sweet Coun­try in­stead.

Per­son­ally, I’d have gone for Xavier Legrand’s riv­et­ing do­mes­tic drama Cus­tody, which was not only the best thing I saw in Plat­form but one of the best films at the 2017 fes­ti­val, pe­riod.

But I am not a ven­er­ated in­ter­na­tional film­maker, so what do I know? normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

Jackie, star­ring Natalie Portman, beat out Moon­light for TIFF’s Plat­form Prize in 2016.

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