Michael Keaton (left) and Edward Norton square up in ‘Birdman’, showing in Venice and already tipped for Oscars
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In cinema, what’s not shown on screen is often as significant as what is – and the same goes for film festivals. The anticipation used to begin in February with the Berlin Film Festival: whichever films were excluded from that line-up would immediately fuel speculation as to what was expected to premiere at Cannes in May. Come April, when that list was revealed, the guessing game would start again: anything not premiering on the Côte d’Azur was assumed to be headed for the autumn circuit, which used to mean – in this order – Venice and Toronto, en route to San Sebastián, London and Rome.

Last year, however, things became more interesting. Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated 12 Years a Slave skipped Venice and turned up at Telluride – a tiny, influential and industry-focused event in the Colorado mountains – before screening in Toronto. Telluride also scooped Venice and Toronto by offering last-minute “special screenings” of other hot films such as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

This year, things changed even more dramatically with three hot tickets from big-name directors that failed to materialise in Cannes: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and David Fincher’s Gone Girl. As expected, Birdman did go to Venice – but instead of gracing Toronto, it has been announced as the closing film of September’s New York Film Festival, which has also bagged world premieres of Inherent Vice and Gone Girl.

The emergence of the NYFF as a player highlights an ongoing power struggle that has recently become more intense. Toronto and Venice have been going head-to-head for years, with Toronto, which traditionally opens a week later, ceding some – but not many – world premieres to its rival. Telluride’s bold attempt to steal some of the limelight last year has raised the stakes further.

Venice and Toronto reacted in different ways. Venice bowed out, with artistic director Alberto Barbera telling industry newspaper Variety: “If there has to be this frenzy to have a world premiere at all costs, meaning that you’ll take a film just so that you can have the world premiere, that’s a game I’m not playing.” Toronto took the opposite route, demanding that anything playing in the festival’s first four days must be a premiere, in effect declaring war on Telluride.

“What I find interesting and more than a little depressing about the Telluride-Toronto fracas”, says Justin Chang, Variety’s chief film critic, “is that these two very different festivals rely so heavily on those Oscar-buzz titles to drive audience/media interest …It may seem ridiculous that Toronto, a juggernaut of a festival that screens close to 300 features, is quibbling over a handful of high-profile titles with the much smaller Telluride. But it’s a telling sign of just how much the relentless handicapping of the Academy Awards has shaped and dictated the way we talk about film.”

There was a time when Toronto was seen as the underdog, recalls British producer Stephen Woolley, who first attended in 1984 with The Company of Wolves and this year will present Gerard Johnson’s thriller Hyena.

“I’ve seen it grow in those 30 years”, Woolley says, “from being a good but not especially significant festival. In terms of festivals such as Berlin, Cannes and Venice, it was much more minor. But slowly it has been hijacked by US distributors and sales companies to reach the status it has now. Which is two things: one, it’s a platform for major Oscar releases because it’s in that sweet spot between the end of summer and the start of autumnal Oscar madness. But it’s also a great litmus test for the rest of North America.”

Toronto, unlike Cannes and Venice, has no competition and its only significant prize is its People’s Choice Award. In the past few years, however, that prize has proven a valuable indicator of Oscar potential, starting with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

“Toronto feels much more audience-focused,” says Stephen Kelliher, head of sales at Bankside Films, who will this year present Morgan Matthews’ fictional feature debut X+Y, starring Asa Butterfield and Sally Hawkins. “Where Cannes or Venice might be more about critics, Toronto is where you see how your film plays to an audience – and a North American audience at that. Every major sales company and distributor is in town and there’s a voracious trade behind the scenes. The disadvantage is that the programme is huge …It can be very hard to get your film noticed, especially for new film-makers.”

For the media, the autumn festival circuit is the starting point for the awards season. Paula Woods, publicist and awards consultant to directors including Steve McQueen, Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton, guided Mickey Rourke from his Best Actor award in Venice through awards season with his “comeback” film The Wrestler in 2008. She says: “Toronto has become the start line for awards season – although contenders need to have staying power in order to make it to Oscar weekend, as it’s a long and pretty arduous road to stay relevant from early September. But if you can plant a stake at Toronto, the impact can be tremendous.”

At this point, it is worth sticking up for Venice, which, despite failing to attract regular studio fare to its cripplingly expensive location, still launches the “serious” film season. “Venice may be less well attended by US press than Telluride and Toronto but it remains a terrific festival,” says Chang. “Judging by the myopic standards of awards-buzz relevance, Venice has produced no shortage of Oscar contenders in recent years, including Black Swan, Gravity and, from early accounts, this year’s Birdman.”

The emergence of the NYFF on the autumn calendar, however, should not be taken as evidence that the festival is seeking to jump on the awards-movie bandwagon. Cherry-picking Gone Girl and Inherent Vice for “special screening” slots is a smart move, says Chang: “It allows NYFF to retain its reputation as a showcase for often challenging but rewarding international art cinema, but it also adds lustre to that reputation by participating in the awards season game. One of the reasons NYFF is such an attractive platform is the fact that it falls later in the calendar. When even a whisper of bad buzz can sink a film’s chances, going to a major festival is a risk and distributors are eager to avoid premature negativity.”

Which is why Toronto is safe: one thing that’s quite rare there is a backlash. “They’re so welcoming and so generous, which is why people want to go back all the time,” says Woolley. “In fact, it’s one of the old clichés: if your film doesn’t play well in Toronto, you’re in trouble. I once stood behind someone who gave a standing ovation to a film for five minutes, and afterwards his mate turned to him and said, ‘So what do you think?’ He said, ‘Aw, so-so …’” He laughs. “I’d rather have that than some of the reactions you see in Cannes. Not just my own films – I’ve sat through plenty of other people’s films where I’ve been thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re killing this film. They’re not giving it a break.’”

Something else might have an impact on autumn festival rivalry: are these films really worth going to war over? With the likes of Boyhood, Mr Turner and Foxcatcher still holding buzz from Cannes in May and even Sundance in January, and Angelina Jolie’s hotly tipped Unbroken bypassing the festival circuit altogether, is it possible that this year’s Oscar winner won’t come from Venice, Telluride, Toronto or New York?

“Entirely possible,” says Chang. “In fact, while it’s ridiculous to start prognosticating about Oscar season without having seen any of the movies in play, I have a hunch that the winning streak will end this year.”

Reports from the Venice Film Festival will appear on Tuesday and Saturday, labiennale.org; Telluride Film Festival, until Monday, telluridefilmfestival.org; Toronto Film Festival, Thursday to September 14, tiff.net; New York Film Festival, September 26-October 12, filmlinc.com/nyff2014

Photographs: Rex Features; Alamy

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