TORONTO — The sounds of applause are nothing new at the Toronto International Film Festival, but a few post-screening responses this week at the annual September rite became downright electric. When credits rolled, audiences jumped to their feet at volumes that would make you think old King Clancy had been resurrected and stopped in next door for some Timbits.
Toronto is the start of the film business award season — the movie stop responsible for all other movie stops happening between now and the ultimate movie stop, the Academy Awards, at the end of February. The films that play at Toronto tend to do well with awards voters, in part, because the festival’s audiences are a good way to gauge what Oscar voters, Hollywood guilds and critics groups will think. If movies do well here, they usually earn resources from studios that campaign award contenders.
“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiography about growing up in 1970s Mexico under the care of a few very devoted nannies, is one of the festival’s breakouts. A black-and-white movie told in quiet vignettes, it has a kind of hypnotic austerity, not a get-on-your-feet-and-cheer celebrity.
It was the exception — maybe the only one among the top contenders. The Toronto movies expected to receive awards attention come in the category of what you’d call crowd-pleasers, which makes for a very interesting wrinkle in a debate currently swirling around the Oscars.
This list of contenders — it’s a quartet, really — include “A Star Is Born,” in which Bradley Cooper directs and stars in a movie opposite Lady Gaga. It’s a retelling of a timeless tale with showmanship with scenes from live music festivals. “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in/I’ll never meet the ground / We’re far from the shallow now,” Gaga, as Ally, sings in a tune she wrote with Mark Ronson that is sure to get moviegoers clutching their hearts, as the film did at the Toronto premiere. “It’s about the power of believing in someone and what that can do for the human spirit,” Cooper told reporters of his film’s theme.
“First Man,” directed by Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, is about Neil Armstrong and his walk on the moon. Made with an eye toward detail and texture, “First Man” exhilarated Toronto audiences with its vicarious experience of space exploration. “Whether it’s animal sounds in launches, or not having green screen where you easily could and most people would, Damien did everything in his power to leave no stone unturned and make this as real as possible,” Gosling told the audience after one screening.
“The Hate U Give” is George Tillman Jr.’s take on the Angie Thomas bestseller about a teenage girl whose friend is killed by a police officer in a racially motivated shooting. Despite the seriousness of the subject, the movie is an appealing teen “dramedy” with a breakout performance by Amandla Stenberg. Stenberg’s best-known credit? The hit “Hunger Games” series.
“Green Book” is an interracial buddy dramedy starring Mahershala Ali as a classical pianist and Viggo Mortensen as a Bronx tough guy. The two take a road trip in the South in 1962. “This is a story basically about seemingly very different people that end up learning to understand each other whether they wanted to or not,” Mortensen said at the premiere. The premiere generated a two-minute standing ovation after much laughter and tears. Focus groups have given it off-the-chart scores.
Lest you think “Green Book” is not an awards movie, just let director Peter Farrelly clarify. “I believe these are two of the best actors in a movie this year,” he said. Yes, that Peter Farrelly, the force behind such popular comedies as “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber.” He got on board the acclaimed script and convinced backers he was the right man for the job; he even landed the modern-Hollywood rarity of final cut.
This summer, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced, then deferred, a separate Oscar category for “popular” movie. TV ratings for the Academy Awards have collapsed, and the earnings for best-picture nominees are rarely at blockbuster level. The academy’s thinking was that a popular Oscar category would save the telecast. (The discussion among the academy’s board of governors was to not use the word “popular” because of divisiveness it might cause. It materialized in the announcement though, to the surprise of some board members.)
The possibility of the award generated all sorts of backlash. Pundits decried how the Oscars’ standards of quality are being adjusted to whatever makes the most money.
It’s a reasonable concern. The biggest reason the idea seems faulty is it suggests there’s a distinction between what’s good and what people see. All but two of last season’s best-picture nominees were seen in theaters by at least five million people, and Americans are watching movies on more platforms these days.
It’s not that consumers have a disdain for work like “Lady Bird” or “The Shape of Water.” There’s a different culprit: the marketing budgets of companies releasing the films. Rather than worry about adjusting Oscar categories to movies people see, wouldn’t it be better to focus on getting more people to see Oscar-nominated movies?
This quartet of Toronto films could help. There’s been a lot of talk that 2018′s biggest theatrical hit, “Black Panther,” should be nominated for best picture, and it should (because it deserves to be nominated, not because it made a gazillion dollars). What this quartet of Toronto breakouts suggests is that audiences are willing to love award-worthy movies. (All the films, incidentally, come from major studios, some of which have returned, cautiously, to producing fare for grown-ups. That should help with their marketing). What it shows is that the distinction between good and popular doesn’t exist, not in the way the academy sees it. You just need the right movies, and the right companies behind them, to make good films popular.
“Why do we have to pander down? Why can’t we make a movie for young people that’s also sophisticated?” "Hate” director Tillman said when asked by The Washington Post about his movie. His comment was specifically about young-adult films but could be extrapolated to work for all ages. Tillman knows something about crowd-pleasing: He produced the hit franchise “Barbershop.”
The truth is there have been signs the Oscars are trending toward the popular. Only twice this decade have there been two best-picture nominees that broke the $175 million mark domestically. They both came in the past three years.
Whether we end up there again is difficult to know at this stage. Toronto suggests we could. When it comes to getting people to see Oscar movies, you don’t need to concoct all kinds of new categories. You just need Peter Farrelly and Lady Gaga.