As if the pile-up of back-to-back world premieres at Venice and Telluride in the past week hasn’t made it clear, the launch of the Toronto International Film Festival (above) confirms that the fall film-festival season is in full swing. It’s the culmination of a yearlong process by which the field of awards-worthy films is ruthlessly pared down, with certain films emerging as the leaders of the pack, as others fall by the wayside. Here’s our overview of the major festivals that pave the way for Toronto…and beyond.
Sundance Film Festival
Where: Park City, Utah
Festival Personality: The geeky freshman–turned–big-man-on-campus senior.
Why It Matters: Almost every major indie-success story (and a few notable failures) begins with a Sundance screening.
Awards-Season Juice: Although the films that premiere here have a long road to travel to awards season, the best of the bunch demonstrate remarkable staying power in an industry with otherwise short memories. On more than a few occasions, Sundance buzz eventually results in Oscar gold.
Significant Past Premieres: sex, lies and videotape (1989), Shine (1996), Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Boyhood, Whiplash, Obvious Child
South by Southwest Film Festival
Where: Austin, Texas
Festival Personality: The trend-defying upstart that’s looking to become a trendsetter.
Why It Matters: It’s still got that “new kid on the block” feel, which lends it a certain aura of excitement and unpredictability when it comes to its programming.
Awards-Season Juice: SXSW films tend to be Indie Spirit darlings rather than Oscar hopefuls, but that could easily change in the next few years, as the festival continues to build relationships with well-liked talents like Jon Favreau and Brie Larson.
Significant Past Premieres: Mutual Appreciation (2005), The Cabin in the Woods (2012), Short Term 12 (2013)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Chef, Neighbors, Veronica Mars
Tribeca Film Festival
Where: New York, New York
Festival Personality: The reliable mainstay, still looking for that breakout year.
Why It Matters: It’s run by high-profile players (including Robert De Niro and former Sundance head, Geoffrey Gilmore) and is located in the heart of a high-profile movie-friendly city.
Awards-Season Juice: While it’s bolstered the causes of several previously-premiered awards hopefuls (like Chef this year), TFF has yet to launch a major champ in its own right. When that happens, though, look out.
Significant Past Premieres: Insomnia (2002), Let the Right One In (2008), The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Miss Meadows, Time is Illmatic, Venus in Fur
Cannes Film Festival
Where: Cannes, France
Festival Personality: The seismic film-culture event all other festivals aspire to be.
Why It Matters: By now, Cannes is as much a brand as it is a film festival — its very name conjures up feelings of glitz, glamour and importance.
Awards-Season Juice: It’s a crucial stop for foreign films looking to make headway in the American-awards derby. And while Hollywood seems to have retreated a bit in recent years, homegrown projects that do unspool there, generally have the inside track in the end-of-the-year horse races.
Significant Past Premieres: The 400 Blows (1959), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Tree of Life (2011)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Foxcatcher; Mr. Turner; Two Days, One Night
Venice Film Festival
Where: Venice, Italy
Festival Personality: The prestigious veteran, defending its turf from upstarts.
Why It Matters: It’s the oldest international film festival around with a long, storied history; and is hosted in one of the world’s great cities, to boot.
Awards-Season Juice: In an increasingly competitive festival environment, it sometimes feels like Venice is on the verge of being crowded out. But then they host the premiere of a Black Swan or Birdman, and everyone remembers the value of being in the hunt for the Golden Lion.
Significant Past Premieres: The Battle of Algiers (1966), Short Cuts (1993), Black Swan (2010)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Birdman, The Boxtrolls, Manglehorn
Telluride Film Festival
Where: Telluride, Colorado
Festival Personality: An intimate event, where the audience and selection of films is as rarefied as the Mile High atmosphere.
Why It Matters: The relatively small size of the festival (and its host town) makes it hugely appealing to the creative forces behind films that might otherwise be skittish in front of the bright lights of bigger-city festivals.
Awards-Season Juice: Telluride’s track record of launching much-lauded prestige pictures has been remarkable — so remarkable that both Venice and Toronto have been giving it the stink-eye. But that hasn’t scared away directors and actors dreaming of Oscar glory, though.
Significant Past Premieres: Juno (2007), Argo (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Significant 2014 Premieres: The Imitation Game, Rosewater, Wild
Toronto International Film Festival
Where: Toronto, Canada
Festival Personality: A teeming, frenzied marketplace of major movies and major media personalities.
Why It Matters: Simply put, it’s too big to fail. The industry needs it, the media needs it, and movie lovers need it.
Awards-Season Juice: Even as Telluride has been encroaching on its territory, most roads to Oscar glory still go through Toronto.
Significant Past Premieres: Boogie Nights (1997), Sideways (2004), Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Men, Women and Children; Nightcrawler; St. Vincent
Where: Austin, Texas
Festival Personality: The Bart Simpson of film festivals: unpredictable, authority-defying, and totally lovable.
Why It Matters: It’s got an outlaw vibe that appeals to a certain kind of film and filmmaker.
Awards Season Juice: It’s not often the first stop for a lot of Oscar-bound fare, but it has pulled off a few major coups, thanks to outside-the-box thinkers like Paul Thomas Anderson.
Significant Past Premieres: Apocalypto (2006), There Will Be Blood (2007), Frankenweenie (2012)
Significant 2014 Premieres: John Wick, V/H/S Viral
New York Film Festival
Where: New York, New York
Festival Personality: The fighter who seems to float through the bout, but then delivers a lethal one-two combination.
Why It Matters: Now in its fifth decade, the NYFF is a crucial piece of New York’s cinematic legacy, and clearly has its eye on the future.
Awards-Season Juice: It programs its awards bait selectively, but in recent years, those selections have often gone on to be big, big players.
Significant Past Premieres: The Social Network (2010), Life of Pi (2012), Her (2013)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, Iris
BFI London Film Festival
Where: London, England
Festival Personality: Refined, respectable, and just-slightly risk averse.
Why It Matters: It’s a chance to appeal directly to the BAFTA (think: British Oscars) crowd that plays an increasingly large role in the awards seasons, and offers a high-profile option for movies that may have missed the cut for Toronto.
Awards-Season Juice: Festival fatigue generally sets in by the time late October rolls around, but London offers the chance for a movie to either stabilize its position in the pack, or upset the balance of power.
Significant Past Premieres: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Significant 2014 Premieres: Fury, Serena
Photo credit: Cannes, @Getty Images