A brief history of TIFF

Fest of Fests 2

It’s that time of year again. The calm before the giant, honking brouhaha that is TIFF sets in. It’s a time when Toronto gears up to truly become Hollywood North, hosting Hollywood big wigs and crazed film fans alike for a glorious 10 days of red carpets, flashing cameras and stories from everyone you run into about what famous person they saw shopping in Indigo or buying a frozen yogurt. TIFF madness has become a way of life for most Torontonians — you’re either in on it all, lining up and eagerly taking in as many movies per day as your schedule allows, or you’re out, avoiding any areas that are festival-related and muttering under your breath about tourists and annoying celebrities and their entourages clogging up the sidewalks. It’s weird to think that TIFF wasn’t always the way it is now but back when it started, more than 35 years ago, it certainly wasn’t as wholly embraced by Hollywood. In fact, one could say it was a bit of an underdog.

The Festival of Festivals

Beginning in 1976 as a festival that was geared towards showing films that had already played at other film festivals (hence the original name “Festival of Festivals”), TIFF started out small, showing only 140 films from 30 difference countries. Still, it was a pretty impressive line-up that included filmmakers like  Akira Kurosawa, Martha Coolidge, The Maysles Brothers, Barbara Kopple and Paul Bartel. Most of the films that screened were of a decidedly independent or off-the-beaten path nature, but that wasn’t an intentional strategy on the founders’ part. It was a time when Hollywood simply didn’t respect or acknowledge North American film festivals (and most certainly not a Canadian one) so even though the Festival’s director/co-founder Bill Marshall was quite vocal about wanting to show more blockbuster-y films to draw audiences in, studios simply weren’t interested and prints for larger films proved impossible to get. Instead the Festival powers-that-be smartly set up film exchanges with other festivals in Berlin and Edinburgh, cementing its reputation as an “arty” festival catering more to foreign product than mainstream film (although, the big guest they were able to get in the Festival’s second year was Henry “The Fonze” Winkler, so take the word “arty” with a grain of salt, I guess).

The First Year

The very first TIFF opening night took place at the Ontario Place Cinesphere and featured the film Cousin, Cousine . The romantic comedy was hailed as a perfect way to introduce the brand new festival to Toronto audiences — a happy accident considering booking problems that actually made it the third choice film for the event — and soon locals were lining up to buy $50 all-inclusive passes that allowed them access to all the documentaries, Canadian features and specialty programming (all night tributes to Roger Corman movies!) the Festival had to offer. For additional few dollars, interested cinephiles could attend filmmaking workshops held at the Cinesphere by the few attending filmmakers — mostly b-movie directors.

And Beyond…

Things started to change in the 1980s. The Festival had slowly but surely become respected enough to establish itself as a place filmmakers may want to showcase their latest project. Icons like Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese would actually show up to attend a retrospective of their work and celebrated actors like Julie Christie, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson drew more attention to the Festival not only for their presence at screenings and on red carpets but for the grist they provided the local gossip mill. The organizers capitalized on both the quality of their programming and the growing celebrity interest to lure studio fare and by 1998, four years after the big name change to the Toronto International Film Festival, Variety was quoted as saying  “the Festival is second only to Cannes in terms of high-profile pics, stars and market activity.”

The rest, as they say, is history…

A few notable TIFF trivia tidbits:

  • In the first year of its existence, Festival attendance capped at approximately 35,000 people, last year the number reached almost 500,000.
  • The 1978 premiere of the sexy In Praise of Older Women causes a riot as hundreds are turned away from the sold-out screening.
  • George Romero is a guest in 1979 to celebrate a retrospective of American Horror movies. Romero must have had a great experience, he’s now a Toronto resident!
  • Torontonians are treated to a free screening of early works by Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald whose films were rejected from the 1982 Fest. Instead they projected their work onto the side of a building outside the University Theatre.
  • Andre the Giant requires a special chair be build for him to attend a screening of The Princess Bride in 1987. The Festival complies.
  • After his film Roadkill won the prize for best Canadian film in 1989, director Bruce McDonald said he would spend part of the $25,000 award on “a big chunk of hash” and a “1963 Chrysler LeBaron.”
  • In 1991, Atom Egoyan won the award for best Canadian film for The Adjuster ,  he gave his entire $25,000 cash prize to a shocked John Pozer, the Vancouver-based director of The Grocer’s Wife .
  • Francois Girard’s The Red Violin opens the 1998 Festival. It goes on to become the second highest-grossing domestically-produced film in Canada.
  • Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie attend a screening of The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford  in 2007 and cause a near riot both on the red carpet and later on when returning to their hotel. A woman holds her baby up to the window of their SUV, possibly hoping for a blessing from the movie star couple?

Well, that’s a history of TIFF. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6 – 16, 2012. Enjoy the Festival!


Kristal Cooper has been a film buff since the age of two when her parents began sneaking her into the drive-in every weekend. Since then, she's pursued that passion by working for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian Film Centre as well as spending many a happy hour inside Toronto's wonderful theatres (she still mourns the loss of The Uptown). She is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture and feminist issues, and continues to slog away at her day job as a small cog in the giant machinery of the Toronto film community.

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