Toronto 2013: Don’t give me the business

September 6, 2013


I used to anticipate the Toronto International Film Festival (or TIFF, as it were) with something approaching glee.

But as I prepare to head north on Sunday, I feel, well, not dread or even trepidation – I guess resignation is the word I’m looking for.

Not that I’m any less excited about seeing and writing about movies. But that feels like an increasingly lonely pursuit, particularly after Labor Day, which has come to be regarded as the kickoff for the movie industry’s awards season.

But let’s be honest: Awards season is now a year-round thing. Sure, January to March is devoted to what seems like a weekly parade of award shows devoted to the films of the previous year, culminating with the Oscars, which feel increasingly irrelevant.

In actuality, the 2013 awards season started practically as soon as the 2012 eligibility season ended. I don’t know what the over-under would be but I’d bet you’d find dozens of references in any search of the phrase “early Oscar contender” in the coverage of films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival at the end of January.

The Oscar handicapping never stops – and I do not believe I could be less interested.

I go to film festivals for one reason: to see new films, to discover new filmmakers, to get a jump on the reviewing season. It used to be that, the more movies I saw in Toronto, the more I could see in New York. (Because, when it came time to see something that had I already screened at TIFF, I could devote that time to some other movie I otherwise wouldn’t have had time for.) That, of course, was back in the days when movies didn’t open by the score every weekend.

These days, I still go to Toronto to see and discover new films; I also go to scout for films I can program at the film clubs I produce.

But, in terms of my media colleagues, I feel as though I’m in the minority.

Because I’m only interested in the movies. Not the movie business.

Anymore, it feels as though that’s all anyone wants to write about: whose film is being best positioned at which festival to earn what award. And which festival is pissed at which movie company for giving their movie to which other festival first.

Yes, I know that festivals want to be seen as launchpads for Oscar campaigns. But I can’t remember the last time I heard an Oscar winner give an acceptance speech that mentioned a festival. Nor do I believe there is much awards coverage – at least once a film has opened – that cites the festival at which a movie was first screened.

But to judge from the coverage in the past couple of weeks of Telluride, Venice, Toronto and the upcoming New York Film Festival, you would think that this is the only reason these festival exist: to provide fodder for Oscar bloggers and handicappers.

I don’t mean to sound all artsy here, but my love of film has nothing to do with the movies’ commercial prospects or box-office (or awards season) performance. I vote with two different critics’ groups – but I often disagree with the choices we make.

And none of it has an impact on how I feel about individual films.

Yes, it’s nice to see a movie I liked (or even championed) do well. But when they don’t, it doesn’t make me think less of the movies – only of the other critics who dismissed it and the audiences who believed them or ignored the movie for their own reasons.

I recognize that the critics’ role is becoming increasingly tenuous; fewer and fewer publications seem to recognize the importance of the critics’ role to the readers. As a result, fewer people are able to sustain themselves strictly by working as critics. The number was always small; now it’s even smaller.

God knows the movie industry doesn’t value us, even when we like their films. I used to get excited about seeing my name next to a quote in a movie ad, mostly because I knew it meant that my late mother would see it and that it would tickle her. It’s not that regular an occurrence – I either don’t like enough movies sufficiently to be quoted or am too low on the critic totem pole to be quoted when a movie receives across-the-board critical adulation.

But these days, even when I am quoted, I’m not quoted. There’s an alarming trend of film companies running a quote, then attributing it to the publication in which it appeared, without naming the critic who wrote the review – as though the entire publication has given this movie its seal of approval. As though the critic who wrote the actual review – with his individual tastes and biases – is irrelevant. It was only a matter of time.

Not that advertising quotes mean anything: Even the worst POS will have someone’s quote attached to it. Given their druthers, the movie companies would all do what Sony got busted for doing a number of years back: making up quotes from a fictional critic at a make-believe publication. That’s the value these things have.

So I’m heading to TIFF again (my first year was 1984, but I haven’t gone every year), hoping to be surprised, trying to keep my head down to avoid the hype tsunami. I’ll be posting next week about the movies I’ve seen. You obviously can look elsewhere if you’re interested in the awards horse race.

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