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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Toronto the Good?

By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Globe and Mail
Saturday, Sep. 6, 2003

''We made Against the Ropes in Toronto,'' Meg Ryan says. ''It was freezing, but it looked like a nice place to live.''''I shot a film in Toronto,'' Hugh Grant says. ''The customs agents were beastly, but the city was nice.''

"Toronto seems like a nice city," Gwyneth Paltrow says. "Why do you live there?"

Well, there are worse reputations. For years, Toronto has been fighting hard to sex ours up, to move from just nice to a bit naughty. At no time are our prospects better than during the Toronto International Film Festival, when hotels are booked solid with stars, streets honk with limousines, strangers can strike up conversations in movie lines without being considered crazy, and bars -- select bars, the closest we have to glamorous bars -- stay open until 4 a.m.

And no year has been more niceness-rattling than this last, what with SARS, mad cow, West Nile and the blackout; with legalizing gay marriage and decriminalizing marijuana possession; with Hollywood cranky over runaway productions (movies that shoot outside the United States) and Canada's not going to war in Iraq. It's either been our annus horribilis, or it's finally made us interesting.

"The worst you could say about the American perspective on Toronto," says Vincenzo Natali, a Canadian director living in L.A., "is that they don't think about us that much."

When I posed the question, "What do you really think of Toronto?" this week to festival-goers -- actors, producers, publicists, distributors and directors -- the first answer I got was always the practical one. (Sorry, glamour.) TIFF is big business. Giant movie companies come here to buy and send films all over the world; hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars are at stake.

Dull as it may sound, everyone appreciates how well organized, well managed and, well, Swiss Toronto still is, especially compared with the two other festivals of equal import, May's Cannes (cacophonous) and January's Sundance (chaotic).

"Toronto is user-friendly," says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, one of the few major studios still in the art-house business, with 12 films at TIFF. "It takes good care of the talent, the press, the market and the audience. No other festival comes close."

"It's the best-timed festival, because it comes at the beginning of the serious film season, when the award contenders come out," says Marc Meyers, an account manager for Variety, the Hollywood industry bible, which runs an annual TIFF supplement. "Especially this year, since the Oscars have been moved up a month from March to February, TIFF is a major launch pad. Attendance is a must."

"We have to be here," Mr. Bernard says. With 400 accredited reporters, "it is the largest gathering of film press in North America. In one week, I can get all the press done for the fall. I can cover Denver, Kansas City, Arizona, places I can't get the talent to go."

The film business is an uneasy equation, art plus commerce, and Toronto seems to have figured out a balance.

"Toronto is a press-friendly, and therefore publicity-friendly festival," says Mark Pogachefsky, whose Los Angeles-based firm, mPRm, does public relations for independent films. (This year he's representing 11.) "They consider the PR agencies partners."

Italian director Gabriele Muccino is at TIFF for the third time, showing his fourth film, Remember Me. Two years ago, his third film, The Last Kiss, was to have had a gala evening screening -- on Sept. 11. Instead, TIFF went dark for 24 hours, and The Last Kiss was the first film to screen when TIFF recommenced, without parties or press conferences. Still, he credits Toronto for launching Kiss to the United States, then the world. This year, he's seeking an American buyer for Remember Me. Its premiere is scheduled for, yes, the 11th.

"For me, an Italian director, coming to Toronto is a big, big honour," Mr. Muccino says. "It's a well-known, well-liked place to industry people. Not to average Europeans -- they know Cannes and Berlin better. But if you want to sell to the U.S., Toronto is a big deal. I was very nervous, very impatient to know if I was invited. For three weeks before I heard, I thought of nothing else."

It also doesn't hurt that TIFF is still "audience-driven, rather than Cannes, which is all market-driven," says Mr. Natali, who has two films in the festival this year, Cypher and Nothing (about two men who can make things disappear). "In fact, Toronto audiences are known for being so friendly that some people don't take them seriously."

Not long ago, TIFF audiences were regarded as a kind of focus group for flyovers, a chance to see what the "real" people think. But that's changing. "Toronto is the last audience I'd pay attention to if I only wanted to see if a film will be popular," Mr. Bernard says. "They're intelligent. It's like showing your film to a UCLA or NYU film school. It is not a Kansas City response."

"It's a sophisticated urban audience that is not New York or L.A.," Mr. Pogachefsky says. "That is, not inside or incestuous."

And if visitors still talk about the city as a kind of quaint, urban film set, a toy-block Manhattan without crime or filth, at least they try not to sound condescending. (Except for director John Waters, who campishly complains that Air Canada doesn't have a first-class cabin on its Baltimore/Toronto run.)

Sony's Tom Bernard plays an annual game of pickup hockey on the Monday at the Bill Bolton arena, and buys his year's worth of equipment at Just Hockey, "the best hockey store I know."

When Abel Ferrar premiered his film Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel, he wanted to find a grungy place to hold the after-party.

"It was hard to find a place up to -- or down to -- his standards," says Edward R. Pressman, CEO of Content Film and the producer of the film. "We eventually settled on a rather clean place that held about 50. But Abel fixed that. He got up on stage after the screening and invited the whole audience, so about a thousand showed up."

Mr. Pressman has two films at the festival this year: The Cooler, starring William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin, and Rick, a black comedy starring Bill Pullman. "We'll probably just have dinner at Bistro 990," Mr. Pressman says.

But for every Lisa Schwarzbaum, a leading film critic for Entertainment Weekly, who tries to explore a different Toronto neighbourhood each year she comes to the festival, there is a Gabriele Muccino, who says, "I don't know so much Toronto. I know the Park Hyatt Hotel." In his 2½ days here, he'll take 20 meetings, leaving no time for film-going or touring.

The more fabulous you are, the less often you leave Yorkville; to heavy hitters, the city runs just from the Uptown Theatre on Yonge Street to the bar at the Four Seasons on Avenue Road. (Sarah Michelle Gellar, for example, told friends, "Toronto is all about Sotto Sotto," which kind of surprised me.) Some are thankful that stretch includes the Yonge Street strip bars Zanzibar and The Brass Rail, where the lap dances are sweatier and more naked than American laws allow, and where stars Ralph Fiennes and Vince Vaughn have been spotted more than once.

Salma Hayek was all over TIFF last year promoting her film Frida. "Toronto seemed conservative," she says, "but then I found out about the strip bars. One where men take all their clothes off too. And according to some friends who went -- I didn't see it for myself -- the men had erections. So that changed my perspective of Toronto being very straight and dull. I think it has a double life, Toronto. A little secret life."

As for the annus horribilis, "People in L.A. asked me a lot of questions about SARS before they committed to coming, but I don't think anyone stayed away because of it," says Jennifer Stark, the director of programming for the Bangkok International Film Festival.

"Mad cow resonated for about 30 seconds. And Canada's not being in the Iraq war wasn't a problem, because a lot of the arts community didn't support the war." One wag adds: "Pot's being decriminalized can only help the runaway production issue. Crews will complain a whole lot less about coming here."

Toronto the so very good should take note: To be truly great, you also have to misbehave.



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