Today marks the kick-off of the Toronto International Film Festival, a massive ten-day orgy of movies big and small from all over the world. It follows last weekend’s Telluride Film Festival, a cozier but no lower-profile Colorado gathering of film lovers, film critics, and filmmakers. Your film editor, sadly, was/is at neither (Kickstarter for next year forthcoming). But I’ve been reading about them for decades, most often (and earliest) from the pen of Roger Ebert, who called Telluride “one of the best experiences a film lover can have,” and dubbed Toronto “the world’s top festival for — well, for moviegoers.” He wrote those words in 1999 and 1998, respectively, and I get the feeling the focus of these festivals has changed quite a bit in the years since. Maybe they’re still prized destinations for film lovers, but just about all I’m reading out of them are dispatches on what each new premiere does to next year’s Oscar race. At risk of putting too fine a point on it, who gives a shit?
Deadline’s pre-Telluride coverage spotlighted the “Oscar Contenders in Lineup,” and noted that the Telluride premiere of The Imitation Game put The Weinstein Company “Back Into Oscar Game.” That same screening kicked off “Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar Campaign,” according to Vanity Fair, while the combination of that film, Birdman, and Foxcatcher meant the “Best Actor Race Heats Up in Telluride,” per Hitfix. (Their award season vertical is tagged, “No one needs awards coverage this deep.” Ya got that right!) The Wire spotlights the “Oscar Hopefuls at Fall’s Film Festivals”; Variety pits Telluride against Toronto in “The Battle for Oscar Supremacy.” The Los Angeles Times and New York Times both frame their Toronto coverage as Oscar stories, while even Indiewire offers up “TIFF: The 12 Films With the Most Oscar Potential at This Year’s Festival.” And none of this even takes into account the “Oscar bloggers,” who have already spent months making predictions about the Oscar chances of movies literally no one has seen.
So what’s the difference between these pre-Oscar hype-fests, relentlessly focused on the movie business, and the cozy movie-lovers’ enclaves Ebert described a decade and a half ago? Far be it from this Internet film writer to point fingers, but, well, you know. The Oscars have, for a good long while, functioned less as an actual barometer for quality in cinema than as an organizing principle for the movie-going calendar and its subsequent awards season. But for the Movie Internet™, it has become the hook that never fades. It’s an automatic traffic driver, a sure bet for curiosity clicks, and a cottage industry has boomed around it online — from the serious film sites to the aforementioned year-round Oscar blogs to, yes, general culture sites like this one. (But we’re trying to keep it under control, for whatever that’s worth.)
And what’s genuinely gross about that industry is its utter reductiveness. Year after year, it boils film culture down to a horse race, treating movies as competitors riding “momentum” or battling a “backlash” or overcoming a “snub,” rather than as what they (or at least the best of them) are: art. Yet what’s particularly odd about Oscar obsession is its built-in cognitive dissonance — every year we drool and fume and predict, as though it is all Very Important Work, while simultaneously acknowledging that nobody actually takes the judgments of Oscar voters very seriously, because they are so wrong, so very often.
If you’ll pardon the graphic imagery, the Oscar Industry has become a giant circle-jerk, and perhaps the film press assembling at fall festivals could put their junk away and just watch some movies. Viewing every single high-profile, high-prestige fall film through the diminutive prism of what awards it could win at the industry’s spring dog-and-pony show cheapens the art, and it cheapens the writer. And more than that, it cheapens the festivals, which would (in a perfect world) be the one safe haven where enthusiastic moviegoers — professional and civilian alike — could just see a new film with something resembling fresh eyes, and a view unencumbered by months of predictions, strategizing, and general bullshit.