TIFF Returns to the Oscar Launch Fray, from Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ to Mendes’ ‘Empire of Light’

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“The Toronto Film Festival is back!,” one specialty distributor told me last week. After two years of a slimmed-down pandemic profile, Canada’s storied Festival of Festivals has filled out to its former sprawl, with a glittering lineup packed with awards hopefuls.

TIFF has long offered gala world premieres for A-list filmmakers heading into awards prime time. Steven Spielberg is not usually one of them. This time, TIFF persuaded Universal and Amblin to give Spielberg’s personal fable “The Fabelmans” a shot at winning the coveted People’s Choice award that often presages a Best Picture contender, from BP winners “The King’s Speech” and “12 Years a Slave” to “Green Book” and “Nomadland.” Last year, Kenneth Branagh’s personal story “Belfast” took home the audience prize.

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Oscar perennial Searchlight Pictures is taking four fall season movies to TIFF, including Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” (December 9, 2022), which is expected to play Telluride; Venice debut “The Banshees of Inisherin” (October 21), reuniting Martin McDonagh with Colin Farrell; biopic “Chevalier,” starring Kelvin Harrison, Jr.; and Mark Mylod’s nasty Ralph Fiennes thriller “The Menu.”

Many of the films speak to TIFF’s emphasis on exclusivity. “If a film will benefit from a big public audience premiere in North America, where the North American audience will be important, we think we’re the best place to launch that film,” TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, who after Joana Vicente’s move to Sundance seven months ago, now runs the festival solo, told IndieWire. He’s excited by a new hub of activity downtown with the addition of the 1,000-seat live venue the Royal Alexandra Theater along with the Princess of Wales and Roy Thomson Hall.

“Empire of Light” - Credit: Searchlight Pictures
“Empire of Light” - Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Searchlight Pictures

Toronto landed “The Fabelmans” (November 11, 2022) over Venice, whose director Alberto Barbera was openly miffed to lose the film, and likely scuttled Telluride’s clandestine plans to sneak-preview the film ahead of TIFF which, ever since getting burned by a Telluride sneak showing of “12 Years a Slave,” slots “Canadian” premieres later in the festival. Clearly, Universal wants the full-court media blast that TIFF provides.

“The Fabelmans,” starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, and Seth Rogen, will play best for those who know Spielberg’s films, Bailey said. “These films have been a part our environment for decades now. What you will see in ‘The Fabelmans’ is where that comes from, what inspired it, how as a boy, the circumstances of his life and family and where he was living led to ‘E.T.,’ ‘Jaws,’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ and all the big epic global blockbusters that he made.”

He added, “These films are part of our language, they’re in our heads probably for the rest of our lives. … If you are a film person, you are going to love this movie, whatever you think of Steven Spielberg’s films: the love of film, the care that he puts into it, even from childhood and adolescence. For anybody who is a cinephile who’s passionate about movies, it’s going to be hard to resist this film.”

“The Woman King” - Credit: Sony
“The Woman King” - Credit: Sony

Sony

Another strong Oscar contender could be Viola Davis for her fierce, athletic performance as a warrior in “The Woman King,” said Bailey. “It’s one of Viola’s strongest performances; she’s not the only one who does great work. She leads a terrific cast and Gina Prince-Bythewood really works on a grander scale than her earlier films. It’s an epic movie and I hope awards voters are paying attention to it.”

Sam Mendes, who launched Oscar-winning “American Beauty” at Toronto in 1999, is bringing his latest, “Empire of Light,” which Bailey said was “a beautiful film set grand in a grand old movie theater.” He also cited UK two-time Oscar-nominee Stephen Frears’ “The Lost King,” starring Sally Hawkins as an amateur historian searching for the missing remains of King Richard III. Hawkins, with two Oscar nominations (“Shape of Water,” “Blue Jasmine”) is overdue for an Oscar.

Toronto will also showcase a raft of Cannes titles working their way through the fall season, including Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream” in IMAX (September 16, Neon/HBO Max); Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness” (Neon), Mia Hansen-Love’s “One Fine Morning” (Sony Pictures Classics), starring Lea Seydoux; Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave” (Mubi), starring Tang Wei; Marie Kreutzer’s historic royal drama “Corsage” (December 23, IFC Films), starring Oscar nominee Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”); South Korea’s “Hunt,” from director-star Lee Jung-jae (“Squid Game”); Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider” (Utopia) starring Cannes Best Actress winner Zar Amir-Ebrahimi; Hirokazu Kore-eda’s”Broker” (Neon), and Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan.”

You can see the rest of the TIFF 2022 lineup here. This year’s festival, the 47th iteration of it, is taking place September 8–18.

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