TORONTO — The Toronto International Film Festival prides itself on offering a diverse array of stories. This year, North America’s largest film festival is also making sure that the media that covers its films is diverse, too.
Some 180 journalists and critics from underrepresented groups were granted credentials to the film festival, and many had their travel and accommodations paid for. When the Toronto Film Festival got underway Thursday with the opening night premiere of David Mackenzie’s Robert the Bruce epic “Outlaw King,” some of its most excited attendees were the journalists making their first foray to one of the fall festival circuit’s premiere destinations.
“I think mostly what I’m looking for is otherness,” said Joelle Monique, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. “I’m a black queer woman. If you can check any of those marks in your film and you’re exploring those stories in detail, I’m interested in hearing what you have to say.”
Monique, who has once before been to TIFF and got her start writing for the website Black Girl Nerds, raised more than $1,000 through crowd funding to get her to Toronto. The festival reached out to her with an invitation and an offer of help.
“I’m just thrilled to have a place,” she said.
Toronto, along with the Sundance Film Festival, launched a “media inclusion initiative” in response to a study released in June by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. It found that of the 19,559 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes for the top 100 box-office performers in 2017, 78 per cent of reviews were written by male critics and 82 per cent were by white critics. While unsurprising to many in the industry, the study put renewed focus on the homogeneous industry of film criticism at a time when Hollywood’s poor inclusivity record is being scrutinized.
To diversify its press corps, TIFF reached contacted freelance writers and videographers, and it began asking all journalists, if they chose to, to provide their sexuality and ethnicity.
“It’s been a success,” said festival co-head Cameron Bailey of the program. “We had a target of about 20 per cent in terms of increasing the overall size of our press corps. Those journalists are coming from underrepresented groups: women, people of colour, LGBTQ journalists and journalists with disabilities. We’ve had support from a number of companies and organizations in the industry who wanted to help us bring those journalists to town.”
Those corporate partners in the initiative include Rotten Tomatoes which provided a grant of $25,000. In response to the USC study, the review aggregation website has revamped its critics criteria to open itself to wider pool of critics.
For Bailey, the makeup of Toronto’s press corps is important because media response at the festival has such a sizable effect for countless films, whether they’re Oscar contenders or less heralded movies that get overlooked.
Yolanda Machado, also a Los Angeles-based film writer, believes that the response to “La La Land” — which saw its awards hype go into overdrive in Toronto — might have been less glowing had there been more in the audience like herself.
“I’m a native Angelo, born and raised here. For a city that’s populated with over five million Latino, why did I not see one?” said Machado of the film. “‘La La Land’ I don’t think it would have been the same had a diverse group of critics been there in the first place.”
Machado, who began writing about movies as a parenting blogger but has long loved movies (“I grew up in LA. It’s kind of in the blood.”) is making her first trip to Toronto after the festival contacted her several months ago.
“I’m extremely honoured that I even got invited,” she says. “It’s really going to open up a lot of doors for a lot of people.”
Chicago-based Danielle Soltzman, who identifies as a transgender woman, has often turned to crowdfunding to get to festivals. For her, things might have also been different for awards favourites like “The Danish Girl” or “Dallas Buyers Club” — which both won acclaim in Toronto but starred male actors in trans roles — had more trans critics been in attendance.
One movie Soltzman won’t be seeing in Toronto is Lukas Dhont’s “Girl,” which stars a male actor (Victor Polster) as a 16-year-old ballerina awaiting her gender-confirmation surgery.
“I will not see that film. I am done watching cisgender actors in transgender roles,” says Soltzman. “It just makes me angry. It makes my blood boil.”
Soltzman, though, applauds TIFF’s program for underrepresented journalists.
“A lot of people that I know are freelance, and if TIFF didn’t offer them money, there would be no way to get them to Toronto,” she said. “Then you’d just be looking at the same straight white cisgender males providing the majority of the coverage.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
Jake Coyle, The Associated Press