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Everything You Need to Know About the Toronto International Film Festival

TIFF Marquee: a view of the Lightbox building, epicenter of the Toronto International Film Festival. / Photo by Erman Gunes©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

TIFF Marquee: a view of the Lightbox building, epicenter of the Toronto International Film Festival. / Photo by Erman Gunes©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

Sure, summer is nice, but movie fans can’t wait for Fall. And no shade to workers everywhere, but our most potent harbinger of the season is not Labor Day. It’s the Toronto Film Festival. From September 5 to 15, 2024, the eyes of film lovers everywhere will turn up north. This is the unofficial opening salvo in the competitive Oscar season. Here, the studios launch their award-worthy wares. It’s very convenient. Canada is just a quick trip up north. American critics and tastemakers don’t have to incur the expenses of crossing the Atlantic - sorry not sorry, Venice! -. We can’t wait for September to arrive, so let’s review the history of the biggest film party in the Western hemisphere.

Who Started TIFF?

In 1976, three Canadian filmmakers decided to bring world cinema to Toronto audiences. Scottish expat Bill Marshall, Canadian artists Dusty Cohl, and Henk van den Kolk joined forces to launch an event called “Toronto Festival of Festivals,” aiming to bring home the best of international cinema and to promote homegrown talent. 

The three men share at least one film credit, working behind the cameras in a thriller called “Outrageous!” (1977). The brief synopsis on IMDB describes it as “the story of a female impersonator who rooms with a pregnant schizophrenic.” What’s not to love? This is a

Why Does TIFF Exist?

Move over, Oscar. TIFF, as we like to call it now, is the biggest movie event in the Western Hemisphere. Cannes is nice, but Toronto’s vibe is more democratic and welcoming. This is where the most artistically adventurous movies of the English-speaking world put their flag in North America, as the first stop in a race that will culminate on Oscar night. It’s an unexpected turn of affairs if we go by what happened in the very first festival edition.

127 movies from 30 countries played for an audience of approximately 35 thousand people. The opening film was the French comedy “Cousin, Cousine” (Jean-Charles Tachella, 1975), which went on to amass three Oscar nominations: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress in a Leading Role for Marie-Christine Barrault. It eventually achieved the dubious honor of inspiring an American remake, entitled “Cousins” (Joel Schumacher, 1989). 

Foreign agent provocateur: German master Rainier Werner Fassbinder brought his classic "Mother Kuster Goes to Heaven" to the first edition of TIFF / Photo by Gorup de Besanez, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Foreign agent provocateur: German master Rainier Werner Fassbinder brought his classic "Mother Kuster Goes to Heaven" to the first edition of TIFF / Photo by Gorup de Besanez, courtesy of Creative Commons.

The trajectory of “Cousin, Cousine” was a nifty harbinger of Toronto's future influence on the industry. The irony is rich, too. Hollywood studios thought they were too cool to participate. They pulled their films in the event, condescendingly thinking Canadian audiences were not sophisticated enough for them. But don’t shed a tear for the local audience. They found solace watching masterworks like Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s “Mother Kuster Goes to Heaven,” Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala,” and Francesco Rossi’s “Illustrious Corpses.”

The Hollywood honchos eventually ate crow, and TIFF had the last laugh. In 2023, the Festival programmed more than 200 international films, including 60 official selections fit for gala presentations. Following its original mission of bringing the best offers from the festival circuit to Canada, it included Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner “Anatomy of a Fall,” Cannes Best Actress Winner “About Dry Grasses,” Sundance sensation “Fair Play,” South Korea’s Oscar hopeful “Concrete Utopia,” Hayao Miyazaki’s latest masterpiece “The Boy and the Heron,” Agnieszka Holland’s lacerating “Green Border,” and a beautiful restoration of Chen Kaige’s monumental “Farewell My Concubine” (1993).

Where does TIFF Happen?

It’s not just a boon for those in the movie industry. Toronto as a city, benefits greatly from the economic boost brought upon by more than 700 thousand visitors keen on watching movies, eating at restaurants, and sleeping in hotels. According to the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev) just in 2022, TIFF brought over $144 million to Canada’s most populated city. The last figures reveal over 5.6 million live there. That means TIFF brings about an increase of %12 people over just 10 days!

Look sharp: horror master David Cronenberg will get a Lifetime Achievement Award at TIFF '24 / Photo by Denis Makarenko©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

Look sharp: horror master David Cronenberg will get a Lifetime Achievement Award at TIFF '24 / Photo by Denis Makarenko©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

Currently, 11 venues of different sizes beckon film lovers all over town. The most important one is the Bell Lightbox, which is undergoing renovation of its public spaces in preparation for the 2024 festival. It dominates five floors of a massive tower of condominiums. It contains five movie theaters of assorted sizes, where the most important screenings and main events take place, like the 2024 ceremony where Canada's own David Cronenberg will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, a propos of its latest movie, "The Shrouds."

Who can Submit Films to TIFF?

TIFF is an event with worldwide reach. You can apply no matter your nationality - or your film’s! -. Since the primordial mission of TIFF is to promote Canadian cinema, movies made by national talent have their own categories. Every entry is up for the “People Choice” awards, defined by categories. Features are any movie with a running time of sixty minutes or more. Shorts are 49 minutes or less. If you are aiming for TIFF, make sure not to fall in the no man's land between 50 and 59 minutes!

What Awards are Handed Out at TIFF?

There are at least 18 juried prizes among several sections of the Festival, but the most sought-after are those voted by the audience. They are common in every film festival, but TIFF audiences have a knack for picking movies that do well in the Oscar nominations. 

People's Choice Awards

This one goes to the most popular fiction feature films. The latest winners are “American Fiction” (Cord Jefferson, 2023), and “The Fabelmans” (Steven Spielberg, 2022). You can find plenty of Best Picture Oscar winners like “Nomadland” (Chloe Zhao, 2020), “Green Book” (Peter Farrelly, 2018), “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen, 2013), and “The King’s Speech” (Tom Hopper, 2010). 

People's Choice Award Documentary

The list of winning feature documentaries may include more rarities, but there are Academy-sanctioned titles like Oscar winner “Free Solo” (Chin & Vasarhelyi, 2018). Oscar nominees abound: “I Am Not You Negro” (Raoul Peck, 2016), “Winter on Fire” (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015), and “The Square” (Jehane Nujaim, 2013). Last year, audiences went for local color, favoring “Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe,” a Canadian doc about legendary children’s TV entertainer Ernie Coombs - think Mr. Rogers, but Canadian. The movie did not get theatrical distribution in the US, but it is available to stream on Amazon Prime. 

People's Choice "Midnight Madness" Award

The weird, the bizarre, and the horrifying get their category. The Midnight Madness award has canonized cool stuff like “Titane” (Julia Ducorneau, 2021), “The Platform” (Calder Gaztelu-Urrutia, 2019), and “What We Do in The Shadows” (Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, 2014). Don’t blame TIFF audiences for unleashing Waititi upon us. This is a cracking good comedy, which inspired the popular streaming series on FOX. Larry Charles’ “Dicks: The Musical” took the prize in 2023. It hit US theatres through the Cool Kids at A24.

Platform Award

All the films playing at TIFF are in the run for the Platform Award. An international jury picks the winner, who gets bragging rights, and 20,000 Canadian dollars. Not too shabby! In 2023, a Jury that included Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) chose Tarsem Singh’s “Dear Jassi.” The visually audacious director who rose to fame with eye-catching advertisements and ground-breaking video clips - like R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” - returns to film after the little-seen “Self/less” (2015). “Dear Jasi” follows the fated love story of an Indian-Canadian girl falling for a poor rickshaw driver when she visits family in Jagraon. It’s a homecoming for Singh, working in India after decades in the West and the imaginary realms of "The Cell" (2000), and "The Fall" (2006).

Short Cuts

Toronto has a vital shorts competition, parceling out local and international filmmakers. Singling out an award for Best Canadian Film allows the fest to abide by its mission to promote homegrown talent, without turning its back on the world. You can get more insight into the curatorial process in our interview with TIFF International Programmer Jason Anderson. 

Short Cuts Award for International and Canadian Film

All the People’s Choice awards are decided by votes cast by civilians who pay to watch the movies, so you know their heart is true. This means that winning films have crowd-pleasing bona fides. The downside comes when they choose something hyper-specific culturally - see the case of last year’s Best Doc winner, “Mr. Dressup.” Then again, that shouldn’t bother us. Hollywood has its share of Amurrica glorifying stuff.  Check out the trailer of Daria Kascheeva's "Electra, " 2023 winner of the Best International Short Award at TIFF.

International Critic’s Prize for Emerging Filmmakers

The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI, short for its name in French) is present at every major film festival. A selection of its members joins major events and picks up critically sanctioned winners among all entries. The 2023 winner was Meredith Hama-Brown’s “Seagrass,” a drama about a marriage in crisis taking a fateful vacation with their two teen daughters.

Best Canadian Film Award

The 2023 winner was Sophie Dupuis’ “Solo,” a hard-hitting drama about a young gay man who finds solace in his drag career as his family and romantic relationships hit crisis mode.

Who Decides the Winners?

Independent juries are chosen each year to evaluate the competitive categories. A single group of three takes care of the Canadian-specific feature titles. A duo decides winners in all shorts categories. FIPRESCI names five of its member to hand out their branded prize.  The Network for the Promotion of Asian Pacific Cinema (NETPAC) joins forces with TIFF honchos to pick 3 jurors to decide a winner in both the Centerpiece and Discovery sidebars, from an emerging Asian or Pacific Islander filmmaker.

A jury of peers: filmmakers like Oscar winner Barry Jenkins populate the ranks of TIFF juries. / Photo by Laurence Agron©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

A jury of peers: filmmakers like Oscar winner Barry Jenkins populate the ranks of TIFF juries. / Photo by Laurence Agron©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

How Do You Participate?

Send your movie to compete! Check TIFF's official website. Sign up for their newsletter to get the most up-to-date information. Dates can change from one year to the next, but the following were applied at the latest edition.

Early March: The submission period begins.

Early April: Early bird deadline. 

Most categories benefit, like Canadian features, documentaries, and shorts. International features, documentaries, and shorts. Submitting in time to qualify as an “early bird” will help you save some coin. Canadian features pay $90 and shorts $50. International features pay $129 and shorts $75. Industry members get further discounts. We are unclear how they define that status - aren’t all filmmakers “industry members”? -. It's worth looking into it. Any penny you save can go to promotion.

Early May: Standard deadline.

Fees go up after April 1, until the gates to participate close for good on May 7. Canadian features pay $155, and shorts $50. International features pay $120, and shorts $75. Again, industry members get a discount!

Mid-August: Notification to all submissions.

Early September: Festival opening.

Again, these dates are ballpark estimates, based on past events. Practice your due diligence, check out TIFF, and send your movie when it's due. Godspeed, filmmaker!

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