Toronto Film Festival Takeaways: Steven Spielberg’s Big Moment, Netflix’s Comeback and a Moribund Market

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The Toronto Film Festival returned in spectacular fashion after two years of virtual premieres or limited capacity screenings. The parties were packed (which may lead to COVID outbreaks down the road, but… that’s showbiz?), the red carpets were glittering and the atmosphere was electric, bordering on euphoric, as director Rian Johnson’s acclaimed sequel “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story,” Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” and the Harry Styles-led romantic drama “My Policeman” debuted to blockbuster-starved audiences in Canada. Hollywood seemed eager to make up for lost time. So, as the curtain comes down on TIFF, here’s a look back at the major trends and takeaways from the 10-day festival.

Venice Casts a Long Shadow

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Toronto has spent years cultivating a reputation as the perfect catapult into awards season. In 2022, however, the Venice International Film Festival packed unbeatable heat by hosting highly anticipated films like “Blonde,” “Don’t Worry Darling,” and “The Whale,” as well as offering up significant star power in the form of Timothee Chalamet, Brad Pitt, Ana de Armas, Florence Pugh, and Rege-Jean Page. The shadow cast by Venice was very long, leading many at TIFF to groan about second-run screenings, like “The Whale,” Hugh Jackman’s “The Son” and director Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Toronto certainly had some bragging rights, namely the buzzy premiere of “The Fabelmans” and the presences of A-listers including Jennifer Lawrence and Harry Styles, who lit up the streets with the debuts of “Causeway” and “My Policeman.” Still, the Canadian celebration of cinema struggled to compete for the same attention (and headlines) as its Italian counterpart.

Great Movies…But Will They Make Any Money?

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Sequel,” the Viola Davis-led “The Woman King” and “The Fabelmans” were enthusiastically embraced at TIFF, but those films — and other crowd-pleasers like Billy Eichner’s rom-com “Bros” and “The Banshees of Inisherin” — may be question marks in terms of financial payoffs. The barometer for success on “Glass Onion,” for one, will be hazy because, unlike 2019’s “Knives Out,” a commercial winner that grossed more than $300 million worldwide, the highly anticipated sequel isn’t playing in many theaters. After Lionsgate distributed the first film, Netflix plunked down $450 million for two follow-ups in a bid to boost (and retain) streaming subscribers rather than sell tickets. That means there likely won’t be a tangible way to determine the general public’s continued affinity for Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc.

As for “The Woman King,” “The Fabelmans,” “Bros” and “Banshees,” those movies will open on the big screen in an environment that has demonstrated that older audiences will go to theaters, but they are just extremely selective about what they’re willing to leave the house to see. “The Fabelmans” does have Spielberg behind it, but he’s a few decades removed from hits like “Jurassic Park” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” having spent most his more recent years on movies aimed at adults. His last film, “West Side Story,” earned great reviews and a lot of Oscar attention, but it lost tens of millions in its theatrical run. Will a rising generation of moviegoers care about the early years of the man who made “The Post”?

Where’s the Oscar Frontrunner?

“The Whale” got a rapturous standing ovation. “The Son” had its fans… and its very vocal detractors. “Glass Onion” charmed the masses with its delightful twists and turns. And “The Fabelmans” connected with festival audiences (though there’s some griping that parts of it are hokey). But after Venice and Telluride failed to anoint a sure-fire Oscar front-runner, all eyes were on Toronto to make sense of a lackluster field. And it largely failed to do so. Spielberg’s song of himself probably leaves Canada with the most juice, and god knows that Hollywood loves movies about making movies (see “The Artist,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Day For Night,” “Sunset Boulevard” and plenty of other Oscar nominees and winners). But if it’s going to clear the field, Spielberg will have to do a lot of glad-handing at screenings and luncheons, something he’s been loath to do in the past.

As for the other movies, they have their partisans, but they seem much more divisive than the contenders from past award seasons. And there’s not as many movies to choose from, which awards strategists and producers say is due to the issues that studios faced completing projects during the pandemic. Some pundits believe “The Whale” star Brendan Fraser is more of a lock than the film that features his towering performance, and other well-received films like “The Banshees of Inisherin” may be too quirky to earn a lot of love from the Academy Awards. Does that mean that late-breaking awards contenders like Damien Chazelle’s splashy ode to showbiz “Babylon” could surge at just the right moment? Or does it give a lift to earlier favorites, like “Top Gun: Maverick”? It’s still a wide-open race.

RIP to All-Night Bidding Wars

In the past, TIFF premieres like Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” Neil Jordan’s “Greta,” “Still Alice” with Julianne Moore and “Bad Education” with Hugh Jackman landed big deals at the festival. But this year, the market was mostly moribund, and studio executives didn’t suffer many sleepless nights locked in negotiations. Instead, agencies saved their splashiest projects for AFM or used Cannes to introduce them to buyers. There was one movie that managed to defy the odds. Alexander Payne did sell worldwide rights to “The Holdovers” to Focus Features for $30 million, an impressive pact that proved to be the exception to the rule.

Netflix Gets a Much-Needed Win

It’s been a rough few months for the streamer, between its stock slide and the mass layoffs it was forced to enact. Things didn’t get much better in Telluride or Venice, where Netflix struck out with the premieres of Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” with the latter earning a particularly vicious critical drubbing. Enter “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” which received rave reviews and, at least based on the loud laughs and thunderous applause it inspired during its premiere, a warm embrace from TIFF attendees. It may even be Netflix’s strongest awards contender. Was it worth all the money that the company shelled out for the rights to the film and its sequel? That remains to be seen, but it did give the streamer a shot in the arm at a time when it was desperate for a win.

Hostile Press Strategy 

Aside from ticketing woes, the festival didn’t exactly endear itself to journalists when it announced that press conferences for “The Fabelmans” and other premieres would not take questions from media in the room. Instead, journalists were invited to submit their queries digitally a day in advance — presumably in an effort to avoid replicating any of uncomfortable moments with talent that transpired in Venice. Ultimately, the so-called “press conferences” effectively became Q&As between festival CEO Cameron Bailey and the movie’s creative teams, leaving little room for any journalistic interrogation. To be fair, most members of the press typically avoid grilling stars at festivals anyway. The move comes in contrast to pressers at Cannes, Berlin and Venice, where filmmakers and their casts address the Fourth Estate, and with the occasional exception — such as last year’s canned press conference for Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” — are game to play ball.

Pulled Premieres 

Movies getting axed for rights issues is a perennial on the film festival bingo card, but TIFF courted its fair share of drama this year with two fairly high-profile films getting yanked either before or immediately after their premieres. Ulrich Seidl’s “Sparta,” an uncomfortable portrait of a man with pedophilic tendencies, was cut from the program just hours before its Sept. 9 world premiere following a Sept. 2 investigation by German magazine Der Spiegel that reported numerous allegations of impropriety and child exploitation against the Austrian director (all of which he has denied). Variety revealed the movie will still premiere at San Sebastian in Spain next week, but Toronto — at the very last minute — evidently wanted nothing to do with the feature film. Meanwhile, Midnight Madness movie “The People’s Joker,” an unauthorized origin story about Batman’s nemesis, was pulled by director Vera Drew following its world premiere due to “rights issues” with Warner Bros. Discovery. Both scenarios aren’t necessarily unfamiliar to film festivals, but the down-to-the-wire timing for each raised eyebrows.

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