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When TIFF Was a Festival of Festivals

Despite a lack of support from Hollywood, many loved Toronto's film festival during its premiere edition in 1976.

Cover of the program for the 1976 Festival of Festivals.

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.)

Posters for two of the films given gala presentations at the 1976 Festival of Festivals: Cousin, Cousine and Illustrious Corpses (which was titled The Context during its festival run).

One series of events was even moved to the Cinesphere due its popularity: workshops related to all aspects of the film industry. Among the wisdom provided in these sessions was this nugget from screenwriter/director Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000): “My advice to someone starting out now would be to write the kind of exploitation screenplays for which there is always a market. Your first screenplay is probably going to be a turkey anyway. In a market of apples and oranges, why try for a pomegranate?”

Despite early buzz from the festival and invites from federal Secretary of State John Roberts, no major Hollywood executives bothered to show up. Their no-show status and continuing refusal to provide films angered Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin. “At a time when Hollywood needs all the friends it can get,” he wrote to his West Coast readers, “some minions of the majors have been giving a grand demonstration here this week of how to lose friends and alienate potential customers.” Champlin was impressed by the organization of the festival and its daily average attendance of 7,000. “Hollywood should have been here,” he concluded. “It’s a chance blown.”

Also missing were the high-profile names rumoured to be coming. Due to scheduling conflicts, outright refusals or miscommunication, local paparazzi were denied the chance to chase after Claudia Cardinale, Julie Christie, Dom DeLuise, Sergio Leone, Marcello Mastroianni, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, or Robert Towne. Instead, they could only have snapped people like Dino De Laurentiis (who provided a 90-second preview of his remake of King Kong), Darren McGavin (the old man from A Christmas Story), and blaxploitation actor/director Fred Williamson.

By the time the first Festival of Festivals wrapped up with a gala featuring the Russian musical Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven on October 24, 1976, a second edition seemed all but certain. Beyond the general goodwill the festival generated, organizers had set up exchanges of Canadian, German and Scottish films with festivals in Berlin and Edinburgh. Critics like Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News threatened to phone major studio executives and “nail them” for not participating. The Globe and Mail’s Bryan Johnson declared that while the festival “featured nothing and nobody that would make headlines,” the week offered “an awful lot that was marvellously entertaining.” As a British reporter put it, the week “had all the bustle of other festivals, but none of the hustle.”

That came later.

Additional material from the October 19, 1976 and October 25, 1976 editions of the Globe and Mail; the October 16, 1976, October 18, 1976, and October 25, 1976 editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 19, 1976, October 20, 1976, October 22, 1976, and October 25, 1976 editions of the Toronto Sun.

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