There are all kinds of film festivals and almost every one hands out some sort of award.
But even with virtually every major city on the planet now hosting a trophy-dispensing movie gathering, there's still just one honor that truly matters: the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And Fox Searchlight really needed its "12 Years a Slave" to collect that prize over the weekend.
Compared with prominent prizes at other top festivals--the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize and the Berlin International Film Festival's Golden Bear--the audience accolade at Toronto is by far the best harbinger of critical and commercial success.
Over the last several years, the People's Choice Award has gone to several movies that either won the best picture Oscar ("The King's Speech," "Slumdog Millionaire") or were major players in the awards season ("Silver Linings Playbook," "Precious").
Although some winners of the top Toronto prize have vanished fast--the case with 2011's "Where Do We Go Now?''--the audience honor is particularly powerful in transforming films that have inherent marketing challenges into must-see releases.
There's no doubt that "12 Years a Slave," the fact-based account of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, is going to draw ecstatic reviews.
But Fox Searchlight, which will release the Steve McQueen-directed drama on Oct. 18, has long been nervous that the film's exigent story--coupled with several scenes of unimaginable brutality--might keep some moviegoers on the sidelines.
Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" was a huge commercial hit a year ago, grossing more than $424 million worldwide to become Tarantino's biggest hit ever, but "12 Years a Slave" is a very different story--as the title tells you, it's "Django Chained."
In looking at the Toronto recognition for "12 Years a Slave," one of the most fitting comparisons for Fox Searchlight is 2002's "The Whale Rider," which also won Toronto's audience prize.
The New Zealand film, distributed by Newmarket, had a no-name cast and told the story of a 12-year-old Maori girl who aspires to become chief of her people. Not exactly, like "12 Years a Slave," a commercial premise.
But as the Toronto audience proved, "The Whale Rider" was a true crowd pleaser, and played for nearly half a year, grossing $20.8 million in domestic release.
Expect much better returns for "12 Years a Slave."
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