Despite a lack of support from Hollywood, many loved Toronto's film festival during its premiere edition in 1976.
Glitz, glamour, and stars galore. Beyond the movies, these are what one tends to associate with the Toronto International Film Festival. While Hollywood embraces TIFF with open arms now, the welcome was anything but warm when it began as the Festival of Festivals in October 1976—it took skilful programming and the anger of American critics to make the major studios take notice.
During the mid-1970s, Hollywood studios ignored North American festivals and their requests for prints of various films, for fear the screenings would depress box office figures when the movies later went into wide release. Though organizers in Toronto hoped that a less short-sighted mogul would let them show a potential blockbuster during the festival’s opening night, none were released to the festival—not even films partly shot in Toronto like Network and Silver Streak. Canadian subsidiary theatre chains like Famous Players wanted to help, but failed to convince the suits to release anything to the festival.
It was a situation that made organizers as mad as hell. Festival director Bill Marshall felt the American studios were “just masquerading as a part of the Canadian industry.” He told the Star that “They got a cheque worth $63 million in net film rentals from Canada last year. They take it out, and put nothing back in. To the New York offices, Canada is regarded like Cleveland or Cincinnati. They just look at us as a big bag of money and they don’t have to do anything about it.” The lack of major commercial entries proved beneficial for independent American films, and resulted in screenings of new documentaries like Grey Gardens and Harlan County U.S.A. that proved influential for future filmmakers.
Despite the dearth of Hollywood blockbusters, an American-themed gala opened the very first Festival of Festivals at the Ontario Place Cinesphere on October 18, 1976. For $150, attendees dined on a soul-food buffet provided by the Underground Railroad restaurant, guzzled Schlitz beer, listened to live jazz, and played some mean pinball. Thanks to the booking issues, the feature presentation wasn’t American but French—and it wasn’t even the French film festival organizers hoped to secure. Like the Hollywood studios, the distributor of Francois Truffaut’s Small Change claimed a festival showing would wreck the Canadian release two months later. Instead, Marshall told the audience “This is American night. Bon soir et bienvenue à Cousin, Cousine.” The film was a romantic comedy that Globe and Mail critic Robert Martin described as “a smooth, soothing and highly palatable film that has been charming audiences in New York City for almost three months. Just the right kind of upbeat film to bring gaiety to the first of the galas down at Ontario Place.”
Torontonians quickly took to the festival’s mix of documentaries, foreign films, all-night tributes to the works of Roger Corman and Sergio Leone, Canadian features, and special programming devoted to children, women, and German cinema. All-inclusive (except for evening social events) ticket packages that cost $25 for students and $50 for the general public sold out in advance. When the Sun’s George Anthony asked a man in a long line outside the New Yorker Theatre (now the Panasonic) for the Hollywood Ten documentary Hollywood on Trial if 9:30 a.m. was an ungodly hour to see a film, he responded “not if it’s a good movie.”
(We should note that the Sun was then the festival’s official newspaper and treated that role with the respect the programming deserved. Present-day ownership might have a different opinion.)