The slimmed-down TIFF 2023 is not exactly unfolding as the return to a full-bore robust international film festival that CEO Cameron Bailey had envisioned. He has made the best of a tough situation, as combined actors and writers strikes reduced the number of players willing to walk the red carpet and do the media junkets that have long made the festival a launchpad for the fall movie season. While the usual stargazing on King Street was diminished, the city of Toronto nonetheless shut down the thoroughfare for the opening night of the festival and the atmosphere was festive.

On opening night, Bailey was all smiles. He knew that master storyteller Hayao Miyazaki’s return from retirement, “The Boy and the Heron,” possibly his last film, was the first animated feature to open the festival, and was screening for the first time for moviegoers outside Japan, where the renowned director refused to preview or promote the movie before it hit theaters. (He also did not make it to TIFF, sending Studio Ghibli emissary Junichi Nishioka instead.) Meanwhile the audience at the later screening got an extra speech from surprise guest Guillermo del Toro. Of course it was a huge success with audiences in Japan. And it played well at the Princess of Wales as well. There’s no question it will give “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” a run for its money for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

“Film screenings this year come from over 70 countries and they explore many different things,” said Bailey. “But they all have this in common. They transform personal passion into an experience that we can all share together. And that is the power of cinema. And for me, no film shows the power of cinema as an art form as personal and global than the one you’re about to see. It is his most mature dazzling expression of his vision.”

Some indies obtained interim agreements for their actors. But even Leonie Benesch, the emerging star of Sony Pictures’ Classics’ German Oscar entry “The Teacher’s Lounge,” wants to stand in solidarity with the Hollywood acting community. She will not be doing interviews at TIFF.

Like Telluride, most of the representatives of the movies on hand will be the filmmakers, from documentarian Roger Ross Williams (Netflix’s “Stamped from the Beginning”) to French filmmaker Ladj Ly (sales title “Les Indesirables”).

Industry buyers will screen acquisition prospects in Industry Selects market screenings, which are not open to the public but to some invited TIFF members. Last year, Focus Features bought Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” (November 22, 2023), a Christmas story starring Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, out of Industry Selects. Now the movie is playing for everyone at the festival. “Whether you’re here to see films, make friends or make deals, we invite you all to take advantage of it all,” said festival programmer Anita Lee on opening night.

The Holdovers
“The Holdovers”Focus Features

The festival continues to function as an Oscar launchpad. Its tribute awards gala last year went to Michelle Yeoh and Brendan Fraser, who both took home acting Oscars. And some 50 TIFF titles were nominated or won Oscars, including the People’s Choice Award winner, Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans.” This year’s tribute is less Oscar-centric, honoring veteran directors Pedro Almodóvar and Spike Lee and actress Vicky Krieps, attending with Viggo Mortensen’s western “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” and actress-turned-director Patricia Arquette, who is showing her film “Gonzo Girl” at the festival.

This year, Toronto leaned into more World Premiere titles, many of them sales titles without distributors, over films that had been shown at other festivals. When and how the market films are sold may be kept behind closed doors until after the strikes are resolved.

Early Thursday morning when the doors opened for the press and industry screenings, the line wound around the block for Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Anatomy of a Fall,” and many were turned away. Some folks still want to see movies.

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