On October 18, 1976, the inaugural Toronto Festival of Festivals took place at the Windsor Arms Hotel in the city’s Yorkville neighborhood. That first year, 127 films from 30 countries were screened before 35,000 filmgoers—and that was only the beginning. The festival was eventually renamed the Toronto International Film Festival, and it now rivals Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, and Venice as one of the greatest festivals on earth. Jane Schoettle has been a TIFF international programmer for decades, and she’s leading the Special Presentations section this year. Here, Schoettle talks about the festival’s vision, this year’s trends, and her No. 1 piece of advice for filmmakers.
You’ve been a programmer at TIFF for a long time. How has the fest changed since you first started?
The size of the festival has grown; we have more sections. But I don’t think the job has essentially changed at all, because the core business is selecting the best films that the world has to offer and presenting them in a live context before interested audiences. The things around it may change, but the core job probably won’t.
Tell us about the Special Presentations section.
This is a very large program that focuses on larger films that are a bit more auteur- or star-driven. They generally come with a fairly significant red carpet, and they need to put the “special” in Special Presentations. There are elements that take it above and beyond, whether it’s exceptional storytelling, strong performances, or insight into a community or characters that we haven’t seen before. There’s a story that’s relatable, which is something that happens across all genres. The focus is also on established filmmakers. Not always, but often. Sometimes, it’s about premiere status. We always prefer to world-premiere a film. We think it’s better for the film, for industry and sales reasons. Sometimes, the decision is really about the quality of the filmmaking; at the end of the day, it’s always about excellence in filmmaking.
How does Special Presentations differ from sections like Contemporary World Cinema, Discovery, Cinematheque, and Midnight Madness?
It’s quite a broad spectrum of selections—that includes geographically and in terms of subject matter. But we will have very large films—for instance, the latest Hollywood films—but we’ll also have a good international selection, ideally from known directors or with a recognizable cast. There’s a selection of films from all our other programmers, and everybody weighs in on the process.
What trends are you seeing in the types of movies getting submitted?
There are a lot of films about identity, about the individual against the world. We’ve lived in a world that’s experiencing an inordinate amount of turmoil in the last five years, so there are a lot of films that are about exploring identity, whether it’s centering itself around issues of refugees or cultural identity. I see a lot of films this year that are very queer-positive. I think that’s a really interesting, terrific trend.
Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are interested in submitting?
The best work that you can do is when you are making your film. I know it sounds a little simplistic, but it’s the truth. We see everything that is submitted to us. It takes a long time—it’s why we’re a very big team—but everything is seen; everything is reviewed and noted. So for a filmmaker, as with any artist, the job is to make the very best film that you can!
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of Backstage Magazine.