The 10 biggest moments at TIFF in the last 50 years

To celebrate Toronto Life’s 50th year, we’re counting down the biggest Toronto moments of the last half-century. This month: the TIFF movies, stars and stunts that mattered most. Disagree with our choice for number one? Have your say at the bottom

Sean Penn
Sean Penn. Photograph by CP Images
Sean Penn and Sacha Baron Cohen pulled some silly stunts

10 At a press conference for All The King’s Men at the Sutton Place Hotel, irrepressible badass Sean Penn lit up a cigarette in direct defiance of Ontario’s new indoor smoking ban. Due to his mega-movie-star privilege and/or wildly intimidating persona, Penn dodged all fines, but the hotel had to cough up $600. Later that same day, a still-obscure satirist named Sacha Baron Cohen hijacked the news cycle when he arrived at the Midnight Madness premiere of Borat in a carriage pulled by a half-dozen faux-Kazakh peasant women.


TIFF billboard
TIFF billboard. Photograph courtesy TIFF Film Reference Library
Piers Handling took over the newly renamed TIFF

9 The Festival of Festivals became TIFF in 1994, marking its international ambitions. Piers Handling, a film geek and university prof who’d joined the festival as a programmer in 1982, succeeded Helga Stephenson as director and, in 1994, became its CEO. Over the next two decades, he stickhandled TIFF’s ascent with a steadfast dedication to Canadian cinema (he even defended Score: A Hockey Musical, arguably the worst movie ever to open the fest) and led fundraising for the $196-million Bell Lightbox.


Glenn Close, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum
Glenn Close, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum. Photograph by Gail Harvey
TIFF’s original diva tantrum

8 Glenn Close, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum were in town to open their dramedy The Big Chill. Confused by Close’s first name, a volunteer told her, “Oh, I thought you were a man!” causing the future bunny boiler to throw a first-class hissy fit. It set the stage for the don’t-you-know-who-I-am diva antics that, today, are as much a part of the festival as the movies themselves.


Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert. Photograph by Getty Images
TIFF booster Roger Ebert caused a literal clash of the critics

7 At a screening of Slumdog Millionaire, a mysterious audience member poked New York Post movie man Lou Lumenick in the back. “Don’t touch me,” he barked, only to be tapped again. And again. Finally, Lumenick stood up, grabbed his three-ring binder and audibly whacked his tormentor, who turned out to be fellow critic Roger Ebert, unable to see the screen or speak up about it because of his throat cancer. It was just one of his many TIFF moments: Ebert was a strident supporter, attended nearly every festival and was the first to declare it the second most important one on the planet, behind Cannes.


In Praise of Scandals
A steamy, sold-out start to the third festival season

6 The Ontario Film Censorship Board objected to a 35-second sex scene in the 1978 festival’s artsy opening film, In Praise of Older Women. The scene was slated to be cut, but co-producer Robert Lantos defied the order and a group of rebel staffers smuggled the original into the theatre and screened it. As if that wasn’t enough drama, organizers accidentally issued 4,000 tickets for the 1,500-seat premiere. The result: a crazed mob (TIFF’s publicity director got punched trying to break things up) and a whack of free publicity.


Israeli film series
Israeli film series. Photograph by Toronto Star/Getty Images
Celebs clashed over an Israeli film series

5 Jane Fonda, Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Klein and 1,500 petitioners protested TIFF’s decision to spotlight films from Tel Aviv, arguing the fest was diverting attention from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen and Jerry Seinfeld signed a rebuttal letter printed in the Star to say that blacklisting Israeli filmmakers would be an affront to free speech. TIFF brass agreed, and the program went ahead.



Harvey Weinsten (middle)
Harvey Weinsten (centre). Photograph by Getty Images
A quaint indie musical sparked TIFF’s biggest bidding war

4 Lionsgate and super-producer Harvey Weinstein did battle over Can a Song Save Your Life? (a.k.a. Begin Again), an indie musical starring Keira Knightley, Adam Levine and Mark Ruffalo. Weinstein won, coughing up $7 million, plus $20 million for promo—the most lucrative deal ever hatched at TIFF. The filmmakers liked Weinstein’s rep for turning small movies into sensations. The fact that he followed the film’s writer-director, John Carney, to the bathroom at an after-party for some private wheeling and dealing probably didn’t hurt either.


TIFF, September 11, 2001.
TIFF on September 11, 2001. Photograph by Getty Images
9/11 paralyzed the unstoppable TIFF

3 On that calamitous Tuesday, TIFF cancelled virtually every screening and gala—an unprecedented step for the non-stop fest. Glenn Close, David Lynch and Richard Harris, among others, were stranded in Toronto, while Mark Wahlberg discovered that, if not for a last-minute change, he would have been on one of the hijacked planes. (The beefed-up action star claimed things would have gone differently if he’d been on the plane—and then immediately apologized for confusing movies with real life.) The next day, a special TIFF emergency task force decided that the show—a more subdued, no-frills version of it—must go on.


TIFF Bell Lightbox
TIFF Bell Lightbox. Photograph courtesy TIFF Film Reference Library
The Lightbox pulled TIFF’s centre of gravity down to King West

2 After 30 years in the affluent bosom of Yorkville, the festival got a new hub in the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a $196-million, KPMB-designed complex that housed five cinemas, two restaurants and the fest’s offices. The next year, the Clooney-approved Ritz-Carlton and the celeb-spattered, private-members Soho House (where Julia Roberts met Taylor Swift) both opened, cementing the southern migration and turning King West into the fest’s unofficial main strip.


Festival of Festivals
Festival of Festivals. Photograph courtesy TIFF Film Reference Library
Hollywood originally ignored Toronto’s underdog event

1 Cinephile lawyer Dusty Cohl teamed up with producers Bill Marshall and Henk Van der Kolk to bring a bit of Cannes to Toronto. Originally called the Festival of Festivals, the event took place in late October and screened an impressive 152 movies from 30 countries. Major critics and Hollywood bigwigs stayed away, however—to them, the festival wasn’t important enough and neither were prudish Canadian audiences. The notables who did show up—including the producer Dino De Laurentiis and blaxploitation star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson—were treated to a true Canuck welcome: an early snowfall.


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