It's surprising how quickly the standard can change. Earlier this year, programmers at the Cannes Film Festival found themselves in a mild kerfuffle because they opposed the invitation of Netflix movies to their esteemed festival. The argument, according to Cannes organizers, is that they preferred to support films that had aspirations of screening in a movie theater, and not at an audience member's home, on a television set hooked up to a streaming service (albeit a revolutionary streaming service that's quickly changing the rules of the game).
A few months later, as we begin the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, the rules in Canada are quite different. Netflix has a massive presence on the programming slate at TIFF, going so far as to have one of its own movies -- David Mackenzie's Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine and Aaron Taylor Johnson -- in the vaunted Opening Night slot. What a change from where the conversation was mere months ago, and a tangible reflection of how the power of Netflix continues to morph and shape the playing field when it comes to film festival programming, distribution and, most important, the quest for Oscar gold.
We started our 2018 TIFF marathon this year with yet another Netflix movie that packs a sizable amount of buzz, The Kindergarten Teacher, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Teacher played Sundance -- and when a movie premieres at an earlier fest, it tends to teceive a less-than-favorable Thursday morning screening slot, allowing TIFF to say, on paper, that it programmed the film. But it's a worthy TIFF entry, a tense and disturbing thriller about a failed poet who sees potential in one of her kindergarten students, but pushes a little too hard in pursuit of this little boy's possible greatness. Gyllenhaal is her usual riveting self in the title role, and the slow-burn drama gets impressively disturbing as she pushes the envelope on what's acceptable for a strange lady encouraging a gifted child. Netflix will bring The Kindergarten Teacher to its subscribers on October 12.
But Teacher also joins a litany of buzzy titles screening in Toronto that Netflix subscribers will be able to see before year's end, simply by waiting patiently for these features to show up on the streaming service. Most of these TIFF entries come from recognizable directors, including Paul Greengrass (the Bourne series, United 93) and Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Walking and Talking). The former returns to the docu-drama intensity of global terrorism for 22 July, a movie about Norwegian attacks that occurred on the date of the title in 2011. Meanwhile, The Land of Steady Habits takes a different avenue, following Ben Mendelsohn on a mid-life crisis as a Connecticut Yuppie who ditches his comfortable life (and wife, played by Edie Falco) in search of different meanings in his existence.
The crown jewel in Netflix's fall film festival programming, however, as to be Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, an intimate black-and-white drama that already has played to raves at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals. Roma won't play Toronto until Monday evening, but the pre-screening buzz overwhelmingly backs Netflix's intelligent decision to invest in trusted filmmakers (like Greengrass, Mackenzie, or Holofcener) who usually bring a strong voice and clear vision to their latest features. Cuaron's an Oscar-winning master craftsman, and Roma -- a tribute to his childhood that's supposed to be painted with exquisitely vivid detail -- would likely draw a crowd no matter where it was distributed. (There already are reports that Netflix will consider giving Roma a limited theatrical run, like the company did with Mudbound, so it can properly contend for the Academy Awards.) The fact that Roma carries the Netflix banner, though, is significant.
That's how quickly the standard for film festival programming changed. In the Spring, Cannes blocked the streaming giants from playing along. By Autumn, the "Big Three" of Venice, Telluride and Toronto had opened their collective arms to exciting features that happened to have Netflix backing. The rules are different now. They'll be different next year, as well, and the year after that. It's wise for fests like TIFF to evolve with the changing landscape, so that audiences continue to flock to Canada to see the best of what's to come, no matter where it's coming from.