1.1079543-2359450089
Julianne Moore at the Toronto Film Festival. Image Credit: AP

Hollywood's annual exodus to Toronto for North America's biggest film festival will be online-only this week, as coronavirus and a closed Canadian border force A-listers to stay home and peddle their upcoming films remotely.

The Toronto International Film Festival typically draws half a million attendees to its celebrity-studded red carpets and diverse lineup of world premieres, which include early Oscars frontrunners looking to spark momentum and unheralded arthouse flicks hoping to find distributors.

ALSO SEE

This year, even the stars themselves are not on the guest list. Only movie lovers who are already based in town will be able to attend drive-in premieres and socially distanced screenings at a dramatically pared-down festival boasting just 50 feature films on show - compared with a typical 300-odd.

But organizers insisted the show must go on, and have called on movie legends including Martin Scorsese, Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet to participate in virtual talks and galas, in an unprecedented "hybrid" format starting Thursday.

"We still wanted to do a festival... it's important for our audience, and I think we just all need some inspiration that art can provide," co-head Cameron Bailey told AFP.

"And there's also just the fact that the business of the film industry as well - the buying and selling of film that happens at our festival and others as well - needs to continue."

'So much at stake'

Several festivals have been scrapped this year, including the glamorous Cannes and the elite Telluride gathering in Colorado.

At a perilous time for the industry at large, Hollywood productions have been brought to a months-long standstill by Covid-19, and the Oscars themselves postponed.

As a result, Toronto officials announced a collaboration with those fall festivals pushing ahead - including the ongoing Venice and upcoming New York - to jointly promote new cinema.

Screenings of hotly Oscar-tipped "Nomadland," starring Frances McDormand, will take place "almost simultaneously" on Friday at Toronto and Venice - which would normally compete for world premieres - said Bailey.

"It didn't make sense to be competitive this year, with so much at stake," he said, calling the film about transient older Americans roaming the Midwest in search of seasonal jobs a "wonderful story" featuring "certainly one of the best performances I've seen all year."

Other buzzy award season titles airing at Toronto include Winslet's 19th century lesbian romance "Ammonite," Idris Elba's neo-Western family drama "Concrete Cowboy" and Regina King's racial politics adaptation "One Night in Miami."

Winslet will receive the festival's second annual achievement award along with Anthony Hopkins - whose acclaimed dementia drama "The Father" also screens - and rising "Nomadland" director Chloe Zhao.

'Resonating'

The festival in Canada's largest city is often seen as a key step on the journey to Oscar glory - recent best picture winners including "Green Book" and "The Shape of Water" emerged as frontrunners at Toronto.

Last year, Taika Waititi's Nazi satire "Jojo Rabbit" received a major boost by winning the Toronto People's Choice Award. It went on to bag six Oscar nominations including a best adapted screenplay win.

TIFF will open this year with Spike Lee's latest film, a timely movie adaptation of "David Byrne's American Utopia."

Documenting the former Talking Heads frontman's Broadway show and album of the same name, the film addresses issues including police violence and anti-black racism.

Lee "has been a vocal artist on so many issues over the years - it feels like this year in particular, what he's been saying for decades is resonating with a lot more people," said Bailey.

TIFF runs through September 20.