Toronto Film Fest Welcomes Tourists

You don't need to have an Oscar on your mantel to get the attention of big-name directors at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The festival, going on now through Sept. 18, welcomes tourists to join the stars for a sampling of more than 300 new films from around the world. Roughly 100 movies will make their debut at the event.

"You can be watching one of the first public viewings of the movies … with the directors," said Ellen Flowers of Tourism Toronto. "Even members of the public are invited to buy tickets to the galas."

Toronto has established itself as a major film production center and that enthusiasm for cinema is apparent during the festival, which is among the Canadian city's biggest events of the year.

This year's lineup includes movies from veteran directors Pedro Almodóvar and Walter Salles. Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey will screen his second directorial effort, a Bobby Darin biopic. Spacey also stars and sings in Beyond the Sea.

While non-celebs might feel they don't have the duds or 'dos for a star-studded event, don't despair. At this event, the fans are an integral part of the process. They're even invited to vote on the sole award given at the event, the People's Choice Award.

"Toronto is a really unique festival in that the audiences are known by the industry to be very savvy," said festival spokesman Denny Alexander. "The industry loves the audiences that come here and they figure it's a good way to judge how films are going to do."

He expects 250,000 tickets to be sold to the public by the end of the festival.

Popcorn All Around Town

As fans and industry types fill the movie theaters in downtown Toronto, that cinematic excitement will also be spilling out onto the streets. Shop owners decorate their windows for the event and street fairs bring the parties outdoors.

The weather typically remains fairly warm this time of year in the Canadian city, so visitors can easily wander from one screening to the next and tour the area in between movies.

"You see people in the coffee shops poring over their film festival books, deciding what movie they're going to see. … If you're a film buff it's the place you want to be," said Flowers. "There are stories of people who take their vacations from work every year and just go and watch movies."

The screenings get going at 8:30 in the morning and the film projectors keep running past midnight, with screenings of kung fu and action movies during the "Midnight Madness" series.

With so much to choose from, visitors are encouraged to check the festival Web site for daily updates on ticket availability. First-time visitors can let organizers do the planning for them. If you order a Festival Experience Pass, the organizers will assign you tickets to three events.

There are also opportunities to learn about film production, with a new exhibit on set design at the CN Tower, a popular tourist attraction celebrated as the tallest tower in the world (1,815 feet, 5 inches). "The Secret Life of Set Designers: Set Decorators at Work" brings together sets from Spider-Man 2, The Cat in the Hat and Charlies Angels: Full Throttle, which were all filmed in Toronto.

Celebrity sightings are also a good bet during the festival, with 400 film industry members expected to be wandering around Toronto. "There is that excitement … of seeing one of your [favorite] movie stars," said Flowers. "Matt Dillon, he seems to come every year."

Stars set to attend this year include Annette Bening, Al Pacino, Claire Danes, Joseph Fiennes and Colin Firth.

Helen Hunt's A Good Woman, based on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, debuts at the festival. Brazilian director Salles brings to Toronto The Motorcycle Diaries, a film about Che Guevara's youthful adventures.

Everyone’s a Critic

If you've ever wondered how movies get selected for distribution, here's your chance to get involved. The festival maximizes audience participation as the guests vote for the top film.

Unlike Cannes or the Venice Film Festival, Toronto is not competitive — the only award comes from the audience. Organizers place ballots in the theaters and invite visitors to cast a vote for the People's Choice Award.

And that impact is not to be underestimated.

The New Zealand drama Whale Rider got a lot of notice in Toronto in 2002, and its young star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, went on to become the youngest actor ever nominated for a best actress Oscar. "The audiences raved about it, went crazy, gave it the audience award, and then the film picked up a distributor and it became a big hit," said Alexander.

Both experienced and emerging filmmakers will be accessible to the audiences. "With every film that has a director [present] we have an interaction. Often talent will come and introduce the film along with the director of the film," said Alexander.

New York director Alice Wu is anxious to see how audiences will receive her first feature Saving Face, which depicts a lesbian Chinese-American whose life is disrupted when her widowed, and pregnant mother moves in to her apartment.

"As a filmmaker you dream of having an audience full of people," said Wu. "This one will give us a much better idea of how this will play."

For film buffs, that proximity is a rare opportunity to talk with a director who may have been waiting years for the chance to see their work shown in such a high-profile setting.

"I'm sure that I'll be sitting on the edge of my seat — probably getting ready to puke, [but] hopefully not during the introduction or the Q and A," joked Wu.

While the festival certainly brings its share of nerves for some, its still a great way for fans to experience movies and feel more involved in the process of determining who might become the next big star.

If you go …

You can get more information online from: Toronto International Film Festival: http://www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/2004/default.asp Tourism Toronto: http://www.torontotourism.com