The Toronto International Film Festival is the biggest annual showcase of potential Oscar contenders, particularly via its Best Picture-predictive Audience Award. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the biggest stars consider the 10-day event to be essential for an Oscar campaign.
This year was Tom Hanks’ first appearance at TIFF since “Cloud Atlas” in 2012. For Meryl Streep, “The Laundromat” was her first TIFF title since “August: Osage County” in 2013. Leonardo DiCaprio hasn’t been there as an actor since 1995, with “Total Eclipse” — almost a quarter century ago (he has appeared to promote some documentaries).
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So why doesn’t TIFF get more celebrity love? It appears that what makes Toronto attractive to many films isn’t true for them — particularly when they might be Oscar-bound.
These actors stick to wide-release studio films
A studio with Oscars on its mind wants to create a carefully calibrated release plan, one that keeps control in studio hands more than the chaotic world of a festival premiere. And since TIFF screens around 300 films a year, a star-based studio release has a better chance of getting standalone attention elsewhere.
Their films don’t need the TIFF imprimatur
Meryl Streep didn’t need to remind anyone that she was a contender when she won the 2012 Best Actress Oscar for “The Iron Lady,” which skipped the festival circuit altogether. “Lincoln” premiered at the 2013 New York Film Festival, a much quieter affair, and Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar. They’re contenders almost by default; avoiding the noise means they stand more on their own.
Timing often makes TIFF inconvenient
Studios use festivals mostly to position imminent releases. Titles like “The Equalizer,” “Sicario,” “Snowden,” “mother!”, and “The Predator” used TIFF as launch marketing, while top stars tend to see their films released between Thanksgiving and Christmas. While “Joker” is now considered a serious contender, it opens in two weeks. Festival attention, even if divisive, will benefit both its box office and awards hopes — but only because it opens right away.
That said, a gap can work fine for films like “Roma” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which had a smaller scale and a slower build. The cinephile audience frequently needs less immediate gratification, but the public isn’t trained to hear about an imminent DiCaprio film, then wait months before it opens. Exceptions exist, such as “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which opens in late November. For these, the Los Angeles-based AFI Festival often is the more timely showcase.
TIFF is risky
Although Toronto is famous for its friendly audiences, not everything works. And the bigger the star, the greater the chance for an immediate implosion. It’s beyond the control of publicists, especially when social media means that word of mouth happens at warp speed. And a miss will almost always receive more attention than a hit.
Sometimes, playing TIFF can indicate a problem
With a film like”Cloud Atlas,” or this year’s “The Goldfinch,” it sometimes comes from marketers throwing up their hands in a gesture of “What have we got to lose?” The Hollywood machine works hard to make sure such cases are rare; if DiCaprio ever were to have such a film, it is unlikely it would be exposed to that sort of scrutiny.