Toronto 2013: going around the block and beyond the edge – the good oil on whole fest from true insi

László Kriston, professional festival devotee, interviews Jane Scboettle, festival powerhouse. With formal responsibility for our region, she discusses the fate of Australian and NZ films at TIFF 203,
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László Kriston, professional festival devotee, interviews Jane Scboettle, festival powerhouse. With formal responsibility for our region, she discusses the fate of Australian and NZ films at TIFF 203, her attitude to premieres, and her selection process, all on the last day of the festival.

This was Jane Schoettle’s 10th year selecting films for TIFF. Over that time, she has grown into an influential programmer who is responsible for the American indie scene, Israel, and Australia and New Zealand, which she took over from Noah Cowen.

Her rolodex grows with every passing year. She goes to Australia usually late March/early April, meets a lot of people and screens movies that are ready. “I used to go to Adelaide when they had the festival every two years, but now they moved it.” So it’s down to Melbourne and Sydney to feed her with products. “I get a very good sense of what’s gonna come to me in the next couple of months.”

A mature national cinematography

What she finds exciting about Australian cinema is that “there is such a breadth of talents and diversity. I think it’s because there is such a rich system of development and support for filmmakers.” Which you can’t say of the American cinema. “You can’t say that of many countries around the world, frankly. I think Australia, certainly in the last 5 years or so, has really led the pack in terms of their commitment to the development of artists, and assisting them almost every way along in their career.”

According to her, that is why “Australian cinema is taking on a new confidence. Now they have a set of artists who are confident at what they do, and ready to launch and go out to the world stage. It’s almost as if somebody kicked the gates open. They are really getting their moment on the world stage.”

She is also pleased with the emergence of a “better, bigger Aboriginal voice. There is a real appetite to see the work of Aboriginal artists.” She attributes both tendencies to New Zealand as well. Confidence and emergence of the Maori voice. “White Lies has done amazingly well here.”

She would love to invite more Australian films. “We just don’t have the room.” There was one year, however, when all the Israeli movies happened to be set in Tel Aviv and were sucked into the thematic sidebar called “City to City”. That combined with the fact that there weren’t a lot of U.S. indie titles to be taken, this vacuum cleared the space in the screening schedule for “something like 15” Australian films. “It must have been about 5 years ago. I think it was when the two agencies in Australia merged and a whole bunch of things got greenlit,” she adds, before apologizing for not being good with dates. “I find that production goes in cycles. And I can only show what people make. Every couple of a years, boom, there is a really nice, fresh crop of movies.”

Has she ever had an Aussie or Kiwi filmmaker ranting for not taking his movie? How nasty a frustrated producer or director can get? “They may kick a chair in the privacy of their home, and I can totally understand that. Often it’s not because I don’t like the film, it’s for a variety of reasons. But at the end of the day, a good film will find its life. The world needs good films. Festivals need good films.”

Assuming she keeps tabs on the ticket sales for the films she selected, does it happen that a film she had high hopes for garnered a lot less attention from the audience, and that another movie turned into a sleeper hit, surprising even her? “I have an absolutely unsensational answer for you. I expected very good, solid performance from all the films [this year], and that’s exactly what we got. There was not one screening for an Australian or New Zealand film that was not packed.”

Crtucially, she has a say over where her movies get shown and at what time slot. “You can kill a movie if you put it into the wrong house at the wrong time.” They opened Canopy in a small house, and booked it for subsequent screenings to larger screening rooms, counting on a growing bu to fill the house. “It worked perfectly.”

How about her past years at TIFF, any disappointments with films that didn’t catch on? “I wasn’t sure how The Hunter from last year was going to go. At a festival of this size [with 288 features, including 146 world premieres] you can get worried that a film that maybe doesn’t have a lot of advance notice might be able to get lost.” But in the end the audience found it, and The Hunter was warmly received.

The fan-base

“What I discovered over the years is that there is a number of people who come to see especially Australian and Kiwi films. I didn’t think about this until they started stopping me in the hallway.”

I suggest that it’s because of the shared Commonwealth destiny. Both countries are remote, vastly huge, with small population, and had a loaded, checkered past with their Aboriginal communities. She thinks so, too. (This year there was a press conference devoted to both countries’ native filmmakers under the title, “First People’s Cinema”.)

When I point out that I just discovered this is a bourgeois festival, for the ticket prices start at $23 (not the kind of price you find at a European fest), she seems taken aback by my choice of words. “Just to push back, it’s not a bourgeois festival at all. There are many other price points. You can buy a pass for the second half of the festival which is cheaper. [Most of the big titles screen in the first 6 days before the buyers go home to L.A. on Wednesday. – L.K.] There are rush tickets, students tickets.”

She’s keen on stressing that in Canada art doesn’t get as much funding as in Europe where film festivals have 80 % of their budgets furnished by the government, with the remaining 20 % coming from sponsorship. For TIFF, that ratio is the other way around. The festival’s budget is in the ballpark of CA$8-9 million. “We had never run a deficit. Sometimes we’re right there by the skin of our teeth.”

This year’s line up

Schoettle is pleased with this year’s Aussie and Kiwi offerings. (So is this writer.) And the Toronto audience, too.

The hero of Around the Block, Hunter Page-Lochard turned into an overnight success at TIFF. He probably flew home with the newly-gained awareness that he’s something of a heartthrob for “the young female audience in this town. He is being mobbed everywhere he goes, all around the city. He’s gonna be a huge star, if he wants to be. If he wants to be.” On every single screening of that film, when he came on stage, there was a standing ovation, attests Schoettle. (She does her best to be present to moderate the post-screening Q&As. At times, she has to delegate the job to her associate.)

Schoettle didn’t know that Felony was written by Joel Edgerton, before she screened the film. She was thrilled to find out that he’s a first-rate screenwriter. She didn’t hear about the partially American-financed film from her stateside contacts, but through the Australian producer, Goalpost Film’s Rosemary Blight. “She said in April, I have something for you, but it’s not ready yet. When Rosemary Blight says that to you, you pay attention.”

Both The Railway Man and Tracks had been picked up by Harvey Weinstein for American release, with plans to withhold it until 2014, when the awards season is less crowded. When selecting a movie, is she conscious of the sales potential and that a film could be an awards contender? “I’m conscious of it, but it’s not a deciding factor. But it is a delight for me when” things fall in place like that.

How to land your movie at TIFF?

“We love world premieres because they drive the market. We have a big, unofficial market here because we have a thousand accredited journalists and hundreds [the press office ultimately counted 4,743 – ten percent more than last year] of industry delegates. Obviously, they gravitate towards the things they haven’t seen so far.”

Is there genuine rivalry between Cannes and Toronto? “A film gets launched into the world and festival strategies have become very, very critical. How a film is perceived, where gets its press, where can it maybe get a prize. All of those things come into the equation.” It’s often the case that she gets to see something first, but another festival takes it.
A Cannes world premiere is apparently not prohibitive of a TIFF showcase, but that’s true mostly for big titles (like Jarmusch’ vampire flick, Only Lovers Left Alive).

With smaller indie films, when she gets the news that Cannes snapped up something she screened and was eyeing to get, she admits she gets “a little twinge.” Still, “we’re not in the business of obstructing things. If they [the producers] can get whatever they need from that [Cannes slot], that’s good. It means there’s a bigger bu when they come here.” But if a movie was launched in Sundance or Tribeca, then went to Cannes, followed by, say, Karlovy Vary or Locarno, that’s too much for TIFF. “It’s not a formal rule, but if a film has been to 3 or 4 other festivals before, we generally don’t show it. Generally. Because I would much prefer the precedence of that place to a film that I know a lot of journalists and buyers would want to see [for the first time].”

Aren’t the TIFF programmers annoyed by [the notably pre-TIFF] Telluride Festival announcing its line up almost only 10 minutes before they start (and after TIFF released its final program announcements)? This year the producers of Tracks put out a press release hailing the triple selection of the film for Venice, Telluride and Toronto, unprecedented for an Australian movie. The director of Bethlehem – after showing his film at Venice and Telluride—said to Schoettle, “To his mind, it was the actual world premiere in Toronto. Because it was the first time that, as he said, “real people” saw the film.” Indeed, TIFF has been known for serving as a good barometer for filmmakers wanting to get genuine reactions from an actual audience, not just industry insiders.

Here’s a few practical tidbits about how to get one’s film selected for Toronto:

– Since TIFF is a non-profit organization, Screen Australia partially finances Schoettle’s annual film-scouting trips to the country. In exchange for that, TIFF waives the submission fees for Australian titles – but only if the filmmakers notify Schoettle in advance about their submission, so she can make arrangements with the staff to forgo the fee.

– Screen Australia usually puts out an announcement to the industry about Schoettle’s trip.

– The “absolute, absolute latest” time that Schoettle can see a new film is the first week of July.

– The very final deadline when the final cut has to be delivered to the festival’s premises is around mid-August. (This year it was August 15 or 23, she can’t remember exactly.)

Schoettle was in Auckland in April and met Leanne Pooley, a one-time People’s Choice Award winner at TIFF. She showed Schoettle footage, but Beyond the Edge was far from being ready. The programmer – knowing Pooley – asked for her storyboards. (Now, how many film selectors around the world consult storyboards?!) “I wanted to see the arc of the story. Because story is as critical to a documentary as it is to a narrative film, if not more so.”

After being selected, the Canadian-born Pooley “hand-carried the film from New Zealand.” The TIFF staff cheered her at the TIFF Bell Lightbox office. “Everyone was clapping. It was finished 48 hours before. And it takes 48 hours to get here. It was the first time that I saw a film in pre-assemblage.” Producer Matthew Metcalfe confessed to ScreenHub that it was very important for them to launch the film at TIFF, and not elsewhere. (His reasoning paid off, for it sold to a slew of major territories.)

With narrative films, Schoettle sometimes see them only in picture lock-off but with these, it’s harder to make that kind of vote of confidence that she made in the case of Pooley’s 3D doc. She’d seen Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures as an early cut as well.

László Kriston
About the Author
László is a film critic and journalist, originally from Budapest, who is very active on the international festival scene.