Telluride Vs. Toronto: The Battle For Oscar Supremacy

Telluride vs. Toronto: The Battle for Oscar Supremacy

Justin Chang, Chief Film Critic at Variety, weighs in on how “Toronto’s divisive new strategy has put Telluride on the defensive as the 2014 fall Film Festival season gets underway.” 

Healthy, even heated competition between film festivals is nothing new. Cannes was founded in the late ’30s as the French response to Venice. In recent years, Shanghai has felt the heat from the government-backed Beijing, while both SXSW and Tribeca have sought to position themselves as viable alternatives to Sundance.

Rarely, however, have such tensions spiked quite so visibly, or with such high stakes involved, as in the case of Telluride and Toronto.

Nestled deep in the Rocky Mountains, the 41-year-old Telluride Film Festival is an intimate four-day affair that screens a highly selective program for Hollywood elites and deep-pocketed movie buffs. The 39-year-old Toronto Film Festival is an 11-day press and industry behemoth, Byzantine in its complexity and Canadian in its efficiency, which unspools about 300 features and attracts journalists, publicists, filmmakers and dealmakers from all over the world. Two very different events, forced by the vagaries of art, commerce and the fall calendar to share many of the same movies, including those hotly coveted titles that will go on to win Academy Awards.

By virtue of coming first, Telluride has beaten Toronto to the punch on four of the past six Oscar winners for best picture — “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “The King’s Speech” (2010), “Argo” (2012) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) — plus a number of Oscar bridesmaids like “127 Hours,” “Up in the Air” and “The Descendants.” Screened in this intimate environment, which presents itself as both a rarefied platform and a sort of egalitarian ideal of what moviegoing should be, these pictures drew early praise and awards predictions from an audience that, while much smaller and less press-packed than Toronto’s, has wooed a number of influential tastemakers over the years — from critics like the late Roger Ebert and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, to Oscar bloggers like Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, Sasha Stone of Awards Daily and Kristopher Tapley of HitFix.

It’s a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed by specialty-film distributors like Fox Searchlight (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years a Slave”) and the Weinstein Co. (“The King’s Speech,” “The Artist”), or major studios like Warner Bros., which scored major back-to-back successes with “Argo” and “Gravity,” both of which played Telluride (and Venice, in “Gravity’s” case) before going on to Toronto.

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