When Cate Blanchett walks the red carpet outside Roy Thomson Hall before the world premiere of her drama Elizabeth: The Golden Age, accompanied by her co-stars Geoffrey Rush, Abbie Cornish, Clive Owen, and director Shekhar Kapur, it will be the culmination of more than a year of behind-the-scenes wrangling between TIFF and Universal Studios, which is releasing the picture in North America.
The film's route to TIFF began during production in the spring of 2006, when executives at Universal mentioned that Kapur (who brought his first film about the virgin queen, the multiple-Oscar-nominee Elizabeth, to the 1998 festival) would be interested in seeing the new picture launch in Toronto. But discussions didn't heat up until after this year's edition of the Sundance Film Festival wrapped up at the end of January. TIFF's co-director Noah Cowan says the Hollywood studios "are on such long planning cycles, that's when those conversations need to happen.
"For the majors, festival participation has a lot of potential downside," he adds. "If things don't go 100-per-cent right, it's an embarrassment for them, and a financial problem, because the films they make are so expensive. So they need to be absolutely sure of the results that they're getting from the festival."
How to be certain in an uncertain world? Most film festivals have unwritten pecking orders in their gala gridlock: At Cannes, for example, conventional wisdom holds that you don't want to have your film in the opening-night spot because the jury will have forgotten it before closing night. (For every rule, though, there is an exception: the 2006 Palme d'Or went to Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which opened the fest.) TIFF is trickier to read, since it is not a competition-driven festival. Besides, it always opens with a Canadian film (presumably less likely to pick up international awards and box office than some of the other gala fare). Still, studios use their sharp elbows to snag spots during the opening weekend to make sure critics and international buyers see films before sleep deprivation and alcohol poisoning kick in.
Cowan insists TIFF has many prime slots. "Every day has its own magic," he says. Still, he adds, "the best films generally in this festival tend to be in the sweet spot in the middle: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. That's my opinion." (He may be engaging in wishful thinking: some of the films in this year's "sweet spot" include the Renny Harlin action pic Cleaner and Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, which arrives from the Venice Film Festival under a cloudburst of poor reviews.) So how do the negotiations for the slots unfold? Cowan paints a picture that may or may not be hypothetical. "Sometimes the conversations go like this: 'I'd like to be the gala on Saturday night at Roy Thomson Hall.' 'I'm not sure that's available.' 'Well, what's available?' 'Well, I don't know yet.' 'Well I need a date, because I have to tell Cate Blanchett when she's coming to the festival.' 'Well let me look into it,' and then we sort of work it out. The idea is, obviously we'd like to wait as long as possible before giving dates, because that gives us maximum flexibility." Translation: If a hotter film suddenly comes across the transom, TIFF doesn't want to be stuck with a dog occupying a prime spot.
In the case of The Golden Age, Universal is evidently hoping that lightning will strike twice in the same place. The first Elizabeth made its North American debut at 6:30 on the first Sunday evening of the 1998 festival. That's exactly the same slot its sequel will occupy. Elizabeth went on to snag seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture and Blanchett's first nomination for best actress.