No red carpets. No press junkets. And some cherished late-summer rituals will be falling by the wayside, as well.
I don’t buy pencils or three-ring binders for Toronto, which begins Thursday. But over the years I have developed certain habits. First among them: perusing the press screening schedule, using a red pen to mark must-see screenings on the grid, then crossing it all out and starting over again. At least once during our week’s stay, my editor Janice Page and I make sure to make a run to the accurately named ice cream shop Sweet Jesus. I’ve even figured out where the cleanest and un-busiest bathrooms are (I’m not telling — that would ruin the whole racket!).
Most obsessively, I choose where I sit. No matter which auditorium I walk into at the cavernous Scotiabank Theatre, where most of the press screenings are held, I immediately head for the secluded aerie just above the exit that I’ve nicknamed “the crow’s nest.” There’s usually at least one vacancy, and it’s an ideal space for hurried snacking, discreet people-watching and unencumbered entrance and egress.
Then there are the rituals that feel unique each and every time: Those moments when, having settled into my semiprivate opera box, the lights go down, the movie begins and I know, maybe within 10 or 15 minutes, that I’m seeing something special. A tingling sensation sets in: This movie is actually . . . good. And almost simultaneously, a sense of dread encroaches: For the love of all that’s holy, please don’t mess this up.
And then, the final triumph, when the filmmaker sticks the landing and I feel moved to shout from the downtown Toronto rooftops: Hey, you guys! Everyone! You, over there! I just saw a great movie!
That emotional morphology is reflected in the hieroglyphics of dozens of reporter’s notebooks, in which I’ve scribbled my stream-of-consciousness reactions since first attending Toronto. In 2007’s notebook, you can tell when I was watching “Into the Wild” or “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” simply by how words and quotes gave way to ecstatic exclamation marks. The following year it was Steve McQueen’s directorial debut “Hunger,” whose astonishing second act still gives me goose bumps.
More recently, at the Toronto premiere of “Spotlight” in 2015, I walked out of the theater on air — not because I was blown away by the film’s visual pyrotechnics or auteurist flourishes, but by its quiet restraint and taut sense of control. I couldn’t wait to tell someone, anyone: I just saw a great movie.
Of course, “Spotlight” wound up winning the Oscar for best picture, a not-uncommon path for films that do well at Toronto. The word-of-mouth reactions that take hold there are leveraged by marketing teams and Oscar campaign consultants, and a consensus emerges that underpins the entire awards season. And when a film winds up going all the way, whether as a nominee or eventual winner, it stands to earn millions of dollars more at the box office. Multiplied by thousands of bloggers, critics and everyday festivalgoers, one tingle can go from a feeling to an entire business model.
In addition to so many other traditions, that trajectory will be radically upended this year. The festival will still last 10 days, but with far fewer films: This year’s program includes around 50 features, down from almost 250 last year. There will be celebrities on hand — including Ava DuVernay, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington and Viggo Mortensen — but they will be appearing in online conversations, not in glitzy gowns and black tie. The film industry conference that occurs during the festival will be entirely online, as will q-and-a’s and cast reunions of classic films.
Joana Vicente, executive director and co-head of the Toronto festival, says that as she and artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey decided whether and how to go ahead this year, “We said we can’t look at it as compromising. Let’s focus on the positive and look at the opportunities [that] this time and everything that comes with it affords us.”
Although most online screenings will be limited to Canadian audiences, Vicente says some events will be free to viewers around the world, including conversations with Priyanka Chopra and Halle Berry. Still, she expects the financial impact to be severe for an event that is estimated to generate around $200 million for Toronto and the province of Ontario.
As for me, it’s goodbye Scotiabank, hello laptop. And what I’ll be watching will be different, too. Netflix — which has been an increasingly visible player at Toronto in recent years with films such as “Roma” and “Marriage Story” — isn’t making its films available to festivals during the pandemic, meaning that such eagerly awaited titles as “Mank,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” won’t be in Toronto’s lineup. Even higher-profile studio films, including Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” will be notably absent. But there are still plenty of tantalizing prospects, including new films from Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”), Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) and Ricky Staub (“Concrete Cowboy”).
And buried within the rubble of disruption are nuggets of potential good news. The absence of Netflix’s production and marketing juggernaut could lend more visibility to movies with a smaller profile. (“Maybe we don’t have the Netflix or huge studio films,” Vicente observes, “but we’re opening doors for films that maybe wouldn’t get a lot of attention or be part of the chatter, and giving those films room to shine.”) Even the democratized space of virtual screenings, and the enforced isolation of watching movies by ourselves, might be for the good.
Part of the pleasure — and usefulness — of watching a movie at a festival is the collective emotional experience, and sensing how it plays with an audience. But once the lights go up and professional opinion-havers begin to compare notes, intellectual lockstep can ensue. Critical consensus can be invaluable in lifting the fortunes of a movie struggling to find an audience. But it can be oppressive when it hardens into orthodoxy. And it’s become even more volatile — and weaponized — in the age of Twitter, as critics and columnists rush out of screenings, furiously tapping out their instant reactions, determined to be first out of the gate with a make-or-break pronouncement.
The question this year is whether trigger-happy tweeters will feel liberated to share their real-time reactions while the films play, to which I can only plead: Please don’t.
I’ve always tried to avoid the kibitzing, preferring to let a film settle before I share my response publicly — even when I want to shout praise from the rooftops. For one thing, it gives me time to figure out why a film makes me feel the way I do; to discover which performances are sticking with me or falling away; maybe to hit upon some hidden piece of symbolism or scrap of dialogue. Most people attending press screenings are immediately besieged by publicists when they leave the theater, asked what they think of what they just saw. I never say. How do I know what I think, until I have time to . . . think?
In the past, I might have done my reflecting over a solo cone at Sweet Jesus. I’ll miss the ice cream this year, just as I’ll miss the crowds and the buzz, the swirl and the camaraderie. But I’m confident that I’ll still experience the thrill of discovery — maybe even the tingle of greatness — and they might be even purer with the gift of solitude. We’re all in the crow’s nest, now.