TIFF 2012: Why isn’t the People’s Choice Award a bigger deal?

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When awards are given out at the Cannes and Venice film festivals, people take notice because the prizes are bellwethers for awards season. Movies that win at those film fests more often end up with Oscar nominations, if not the big Best Picture prize itself, the following year. It also doesn't hurt that the trophies given out have prestigious-sounding names like the Palme d'Or, Silver Lion, and Grand Prix.

But what about the Toronto International Film Festival? Does its top prize, the People's Choice Award, give film lovers any indication of what movie will win big at the Academy Awards? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. The egalitarian nature of how winners are determined at TIFF means that the "best" movie doesn't always win.

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Unlike Cannes and Venice, whose awards are usually handed out by an esteemed jury of filmmakers, critics, and journalists, TIFF lives up to its name as the largest public film festival in the world. The prize is called the People's Choice Award for a reason: festival audiences are the ones who decide the winner by casting their votes after screenings.

Though there may be some overlap between what the critics and audiences like the most, TIFF's People's Choice Award always goes to biggest crowd pleaser, regardless of the reviews. A look back at some past PCA winners illustrates just how spotty TIFF's record is with picking future Oscar contenders.

"The King's Speech"

Though eventual Best Picture winner "The Artist" was very well-received at the 2011 festival, last year's People's Choice Award went to the French-Lebanese drama "Where Do We Go Now?" — a movie you likely haven't heard much about. The Nadine Labaki-directed film did very well during festival season (having also picked up the François Chalais Prize at Cannes) but did almost nothing come awards time. "Where Do We Go Now?" failed to even make the Academy's shortlist for Best Foreign Language film.

Contrast that head-scratching TIFF pick with 2010, when "The King's Speech" took home the People's Choice prize and subsequently won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Spot on.

"Slumdog Millionaire"

Other past PCA winners that went on to Best Picture glory include 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire," 1999's "American Beauty," and 1981's "Chariots of Fire." A number of Oscar nominees have also won the TIFF prize over the years, including "Precious," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and "Shine." Some years the audiences hit the nail on the head, and others they simply couldn't be further from the mark. Well deserving anomalies like Takeshi Kitano's samurai actioner "Zatoichi" and the fairy tale farce "The Princess Bride" have also won the award, but they were never seen anywhere near the Academy Awards (unless you count the latter's Best Song nomination).

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One of this year's potential PCA winners, David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," seems to have both audiences and critics raving (a fact that should make it a shoo-in), but as TIFF has demonstrated in the past, it's still anyone's game until the award is announced.

"Silver Linings Playbook"

This inconsistency means that TIFF's award choices don't ever really get the same amount of play as their European counterparts. Film critics and moviemakers are generally more inclined to side with their colleagues when it comes to picking winners at Cannes and Venice, and the result is a somewhat insular cycle of acclaim that leads all the way to Oscar. What makes TIFF, and indeed the People's Choice Award, so special is that it operates outside of this industry bubble. The prize is a real and honest reflection of what passionate filmgoers enjoyed the most at the festival.

Though TIFF recently expanded their People's Choice categories to include individual documentary and Midnight Madness (genre film) awards, the festival may be headed for a more European-style prize system. Corporate sponsored awards whose winners are selected by juries of film professionals have been given increasing prestige by TIFF over the past few years. The best Canadian and international film awards are chosen in this manner, with the festival public having no say in who wins those prizes. Last year's SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film winner, "Edwin Boyd," was selected by a jury that included actress Liane Balaban ("The Trotsky"), director Sturla Gunnarsson ("Rare Birds"), and writer Denis Séguin, while film critics determined the remainder of the prizes given out.

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Toronto's very popular and populist film festival may soon find itself at a crossroads. Will it let the festival public decide what's good, or will it toe the line and put the prize power into the hands of a select few critics and filmmakers?