Dear New York: Suck It. Love, Toronto International Film Festival

The only conversation I really remember having last night during the deeply, deeply demoralizing and sad and increasingly alcohol-befogged Oscarcast went kind of like this:

Me: "Well, so much for launching your Oscar hopeful at the New York Film Festival."

Other Person: "What?"

Me: "I'm just saying... [PUKE]"

I would first like to apologize to that person for the vomit spatter on his otherwise spotless black dress shoes. And then I would like to quickly explain what I meant: Since roughly 2004, when Crash premiered and was acquired at the Toronto International Film Festival -- it eventually opened theatrically in spring 2005 and won the Oscar for Best Picture in February 2006 -- Toronto has been considered the definitive launching pad for contemporary Academy Awards campaigns. Among the recent Best Picture winners and/or contenders that made their awards-season debuts at Toronto: No Country For Old Men, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, Precious, An Education, A Serious Man, 127 Hours, Black Swan, and, of course, The King's Speech. Say what you will about the Telluride warm-ups or the Sundance factor of films like Little Miss Sunshine, Precious, Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right. Ultimately, if you want to win Best Picture, you pretty much have to go through Toronto.

Which is a shame, because for the classy, prestigious team at the New York Film Festival -- which debuted The Social Network last September in one of the most resounding coups in its 48-year history -- the best it can say for this awards season is that at least it screened the year's Best Documentary Feature winner, Inside Job. (Although, to be fair, Charles Ferguson's film first premiered at Cannes and also -- wait for it -- went through Toronto.) Sony knew what it was doing when it took the opening-night, world-premiere slot at last year's NYFF, with the swank party at the Harvard Club and a core group of influential critics playing in the festival's sandbox, but geopolitical festival strategy was only part of the deal: While reclaiming the Oscar conversation from The King's Speech, Sony moreover set out, presumably once and for all, to reinforce the prerogative of studios to play the Oscar game on their own terms.

That worked -- for a while. Indeed, the critics lavished laurels upon laurels on TSN,and the film seemed a runaway lock for the year's Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. But that didn't matter to the Weinstein Company, which more routinely make awards fodder of acquisition titles from Sundance (e.g. Blue Valentine) or Toronto (e.g. A Single Man) when it's not rushing its pre-bought projects for consideration (e.g. The Reader and Nine). For the Weinsteins, the caliber of the festival buzz was less essential than the head start it could achieve in Toronto, three full weeks ahead of NYFF -- though the caliber certainly mattered: Winning an Audience Award up north said all Harvey Weinstein needed to say when it came to his hard guild-and-Academy sell this winter. For the first time in the Weinstein Company's five-year history, it had a film that A) viewers sincerely liked and B) wasn't a wet print being raced to qualify for the Oscars in limited release.

The box office results came to reflect this popular support, earning $100 million before it ever got a PG-13 version approved (take that, Sony), and last night's Oscars confirmed the imperative -- not even the importance, but the out-and-out necessity -- of commencing any legitimate awards-season run with a big TIFF coming-out party. Even Warner Bros., which shares a long, fruitiful relationship with NYFF, officially unveiled its true Best Picture contender The Town at Toronto while letting New York have Clint Eastwood's underwhelming (but sexy on paper!) Hereafter for its own closing-night selection. Sony gambled on the glitzier stage, and while as a result it did well both critically and commercially, it overextended the Fincherian will to power -- the uncompromising approach that makes for extraordinary cinema yet is somehow incompatible with Academy tastes. Not that voters are looking at festival premiere dates before filling out their ballots or anything! But: Slow and steady -- not hot and cerebral -- wins the race every time with these people.

Toronto's fest leadership knows and now owns this fact, hence the brilliant press release to which I groggily awoke this morning:

TIFF congratulates The King's Speech for its stellar awards season run, culminating tonight with the top honour of Best Picture at the 83rd Academy Awards. The film's achievement streak kicked off at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival, winning its very first prize -- the Cadillac People's Choice Award -- which is based on popular vote by Festival filmgoers. This audience accolade has emerged as a beacon of awards season success; previous winners include Slumdog Millionaire, Precious and American Beauty.

"Toronto audiences connect with strong films, and have once again proven to be the most informed and enthusiastic filmgoers in the world. They saw, and celebrated, The King's Speech first," said Cameron Bailey, Co-Director, Toronto International Film Festival. "We are proud of TIFF's programming team for discovering the year's best films."

A total of 38 Oscar nominees screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, including all five Foreign Language Film contenders: Incendies, Biutiful, Dogtooth, Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi) and winner In a Better World.

Dammmnnn. It's important to note that NYFF is a fiercely selective event featuring an average of 25 films each year, while the much bigger TIFF screens basically anything that can be projected in the shape of a rectangle. And NYFF history does overlap with some Oscar faves' long tails, including its darling Eastwood's Mystic River. But its efforts at awards-season relevance will rarely surpass Toronto's own, if only by virtue, again, of its timing in late September. Sure, New York had the U.S. premiere of No Country for Old Men, but as buzz goes, it amounted to sloppy seconds after Toronto's gala premiere weeks earlier. (Or sloppy thirds if we count the film's world premiere at Cannes, which I guess we should to be fair; even Toronto can't have it all, you know.) The 2009 NYFF centerpiece Precious trickled down from Sundance and Toronto as well, so you can't exactly say the selectivity is immune to some market pressure, cultural currency and/or starpower.

Anyway, that's what I meant to explain last night before giving up on awards season entirely -- or at least until next September, when it all begins anew. It's all so mechanized -- not even predictable, but rote and disingenuous and literally by the numbers. (And if you don't believe me, ask Cameron Bailey again how many Oscar nominees went through TIFF.) We all share some blame, of course, but in the end, perhaps the bigger lesson is to appreciate cultural institutions for what they truly are. That goes for the institutions' leaders especially: For all the ink NYFF earned by nabbing the world premiere of The Social Network, there's an even more indelible ignominy to its profile being punked yet again by the folks up north. I mean, come on! And don't think NYFF or the team at the Film Society of Lincoln Center wouldn't have loved to send out its own post-Oscar press release citing themselves as the launching pad of last year's Best Picture.

But as a New Yorker, it's sort of refreshing to me that they didn't have to -- that they might retain some austerity, some comforting, clean-aired sanctum above the awards fray. I like them there. To be certain, not everyone is a winner. But in company like this? Such ordinary fare as The King's Speech? I don't
know. Maybe winning is overrated.



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