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With TIFF facing a tough year, Netflix makes a swift exit from festival season


TORONTO — Netflix and the Toronto International Film Festival have been an inseparable power couple for years, mastering the ways to get moviegoers talking, but during the pandemic their storied Hollywood relationship is on a break.

When Netflix marks its 10th anniversary in Canada later this month, it'll celebrate without a single film showing in the TIFF lineup, part of a broader decision by the streaming company to skip film festivals entirely for at least the remainder of the year.

While the move is sweeping, it stings especially for organizers at TIFF, a festival that's made an effort to present themselves as Netflix's closest binge buddy, even throughout the streamer's fraught relationship with the Cannes Film Festival over the integrity of theatrical releases.

"We're currently in a very odd circumstance where everybody needs Netflix way more than Netflix needs everyone else," said Bilge Ebiri, a film writer for New York Magazine and Vulture.

However, that's not necessarily a permanent situation, he added.

"One assumes that eventually film festivals will be back to the way they were," Ebiri said.

But a return to the status quo isn't a guarantee. Distributors and exhibitors are struggling to recover from months of shuttered movie theatres and many cinemagoers are reluctant to return as the virus continues to spread.

That's given the streaming industry an upper hand with Netflix among the leaders of the pack as more households sign up for the service. It's also sitting on many of the year's most hotly anticipated fall titles: David Fincher's Oscar hopeful "Mank," Ron Howard's "Hillbilly Elegy" and "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

Any other year those films would've generated major attention on TIFF's red carpets, but without flashbulbs and celebrity appearances, Netflix may have seen little reason to participate in the Toronto festival's nationwide virtual screenings, Ebiri suggested.

"Their films are going to screen virtually anyway," he said.

"To have this special premiere where people watch it on a platform — a platform, which by the way, won't be Netflix and will probably be inferior to Netflix in terms of user friendliness — makes no sense."

A representative for Netflix declined to make anyone available to discuss the company's festival strategy.

Hannah Woodhead, associate editor of film website Little White Lies, said Netflix's absence likely came down to weighing costs of publicity against whether those efforts would actually make them stand out in a version of TIFF that's largely online.

"No doubt this year Netflix just didn't see the value," she said.

"When you can effectively launch your film at the click of a button, it makes sense you'd choose to do that when you face the least amount of competition.

But history has shown Netflix and TIFF's past allegiance pays dividends. The festival carries a reputation as a purveyor of taste in the run-up to awards season, and TIFF helped launch numerous Netflix films that sailed towards Oscar glory.

"Marriage Story" and "The Two Popes" picked up multiple Academy Award nominations after TIFF screenings last September.

A year earlier, Netflix's "Outlaw King" became the first streaming film to launch a major international film festival on TIFF's opening night, a claim that punctuated a year where "Roma" was all the rage with the festival's critical mass.

Paul Moore, a Ryerson University professor who studies the habits of moviegoing, suggested there are too many questions hovering over the industry to predict beyond a few week's time.

Studios are regularly delaying theatrical release dates, and the window of eligibility for next year's Oscars was bumped from December into February 2021, which pushed the big night to late April.

"Nobody really knows how the Oscar race is going to happen, but it's definitely not going to start at TIFF," he said.

"Whether we have a race that happens in any way like it used to is really up in the air."

Not everyone feels as downbeat about the buzz that could be generated at this year's TIFF. Most other major streaming platforms have shown up with titles and may find the sparse festival selection works to their advantage.

Apple TV Plus brought the documentary "Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds," co-directed by Werner Herzog, while another focused on environmental activist Greta Thunberg, called "I Am Greta," arrives under the label of U.S. streaming platform Hulu.

Amazon has a few of its own, including Regina King's directorial debut "One Night in Miami," which has already ignited talk of awards potential.

Canadian streaming platform Crave, owned by TIFF's lead sponsor Bell Media, helped bulk up TIFF's selection with numerous picks, including Spike Lee concert film "David Byrne's American Utopia."

Other Crave titles at the festival include documentaries "Inconvenient Indian," and "The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel," as well as two features, Viggo Mortensen's "Falling" and "Beans," a coming-of-age drama set during the Oka Crisis.

Etan Vlessing, a Toronto-based journalist for The Hollywood Reporter, credited Bell Media with stepping up when Netflix pulled back.

"The guys at Bell Media have actually made an effort to get behind TIFF," he said.

"You could make the argument that Bell Media, this year, really saved the Toronto film festival."

Vlessing said what that means for TIFF in the future is still to be determined as the industry continues to evolve in the pandemic.

"We're very much at a point where people are having to really adapt," he said.

"We may never go back to how things were."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2020.

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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