Toronto International Film Festival: Navigating Challenges and Celebrating Cinema

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has always been a highly anticipated event in the film industry, attracting filmmakers, actors, and cinephiles from around the world. However, the 2023 edition of TIFF experienced some unique challenges, including strikes by actors and writers, which resulted in a scaled-down festival. In this article, we will explore how TIFF adapted to these challenges and continued to showcase outstanding films while maintaining its reputation as an Oscar launchpad.

The Impact of Strikes on TIFF 2023

TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey had envisioned a grand return to a full-scale international film festival for TIFF 2023. However, the festival faced an unexpected hurdle in the form of strikes by actors and writers. These strikes reduced the number of celebrities willing to participate in the festival’s traditional red carpet events and media promotions, which had long been a hallmark of TIFF’s opening night. Despite these challenges, the city of Toronto came together to create a festive atmosphere for the festival’s opening night.

On that night, Bailey remained optimistic, knowing that the legendary Hayao Miyazaki was returning from retirement with his latest film, “The Boy and the Heron.” This film, possibly Miyazaki’s last, was screening for the first time outside Japan. The renowned director had refused to preview or promote the movie before its theatrical release, creating a sense of anticipation among audiences. “The Boy and the Heron” proved to be a massive success, and it was clear that it would be a strong contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, possibly challenging films like “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

The Power of Cinema at TIFF

Bailey emphasized that TIFF 2023 featured films from over 70 countries, each exploring diverse themes. However, they all shared a common thread: the ability to transform personal passion into a shared cinematic experience. This, he argued, is the true power of cinema as an art form, bridging the personal and the global. He hailed “The Boy and the Heron” as a prime example of this power, describing it as Miyazaki’s most mature and dazzling expression of his vision.

Despite the strikes, some independent filmmakers managed to secure interim agreements for their actors. However, even emerging stars like Leonie Benesch, who played a key role in Sony Pictures’ German Oscar entry “The Teacher’s Lounge,” chose to stand in solidarity with the Hollywood acting community by abstaining from interviews at TIFF.

A Platform for Filmmakers and Industry Professionals

TIFF has always been a platform for both established and emerging filmmakers to showcase their work. This year was no exception, with directors like Roger Ross Williams (known for Netflix’s “Stamped from the Beginning”) and French filmmaker Ladj Ly presenting their films. Industry buyers also had the opportunity to screen potential acquisitions at the Industry Selects market screenings, although these were not open to the general public. Last year, Focus Features acquired Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” at the Industry Selects, and it is now playing for all festival attendees. Festival programmer Anita Lee encouraged everyone to make the most of their TIFF experience, whether it was about watching films, networking, or striking deals.

TIFF as an Oscar Launchpad

One of TIFF’s significant roles in the film industry is serving as an Oscar launchpad. The festival’s tribute awards gala in the previous year had honored Michelle Yeoh and Brendan Fraser, both of whom went on to win Oscars. Additionally, around 50 films that premiered at TIFF received Oscar nominations or awards, including the People’s Choice Award winner, Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans.” This year, the festival paid tribute to directors Pedro Almodóvar and Spike Lee, actress Vicky Krieps, and actress-turned-director Patricia Arquette. Notably, Patricia Arquette was showcasing her film “Gonzo Girl” at the festival.

Embracing World Premieres at TIFF 2023

TIFF 2023 took a different approach by focusing more on world premieres, especially films without distributors, rather than those that had been screened at other festivals. The timing and process of selling market films might be shrouded in secrecy due to the ongoing strikes. Despite the challenges, excitement was palpable among festival-goers. For instance, there was a long line around the block for the Cannes Palme d’Or winner, “Anatomy of a Fall,” and many were disappointed as they were turned away.

A Cinematic Swan Song: “The Boy and the Heron”

The North American premiere of “The Boy and the Heron” marked the opening of TIFF 2023. This film, directed by animation icon Hayao Miyazaki, is his first feature in a decade and is likely to be his cinematic swan song. Despite the absence of the 82-year-old filmmaker at the screening, the audience at the Princess of Wales Theater enthusiastically cheered whenever his name or Studio Ghibli, his creative home, was mentioned. The film, with its fantastical story of grief and coming of age, received a warm reception.

Cameron Bailey, CEO of TIFF, introduced the film, highlighting its significance in showcasing the power of cinema as both a personal and global art form. He acknowledged that this might be Miyazaki’s final work, adding a layer of poignancy to the screening.

Challenges Faced by TIFF 2023

Traditionally, TIFF has been a crucial stop for studios and A-list talent during awards season campaigns. However, the 2023 Oscar race took place under the shadow of labor strikes by screenwriters and actors, limiting the participation of stars. Only a select few who received waivers from the Screen Actors Guild for publicity purposes made the journey to Canada. This resulted in fewer red carpet events and a reduced presence of film journalists. Nonetheless, the festival retained its allure, with King Street bustling with both locals and notable figures like Viggo Mortensen, who was in attendance with his directorial effort, “The Dead Don’t Hurt.”

Navigating COVID-19 Concerns

While TIFF was eager to move past the impact of COVID-19, rising infection rates meant that a significant portion of the audience wore masks for safety. The fear of the virus was evident as people reacted nervously to coughs and sneezes in the theater.

Exploring “The Boy and the Heron”

“The Boy and the Heron” is set against the backdrop of World War II, following a young boy grappling with the loss of his mother. He must adjust to life with his father and his new wife, who happens to be his aunt. In addition to this challenging family dynamic, the film introduces an alternate universe where the boy must confront fearsome parakeets and contend with a powerful wizard with whom he shares a unique bond. The film embodies Miyazaki’s signature blend of fantasy and emotional depth.

While critics generally praised the film, some had minor criticisms. Variety’s Peter Debruge noted that Miyazaki had not tarnished his filmography with this work but had not expanded it in the way “Spirited Away” did. Nonetheless, the laughter and applause from the packed theater at the Princess of Wales indicated that “The Boy and the Heron” had provided a wonderful cinematic experience for its audience.


Despite the challenges posed by strikes and ongoing concerns about COVID-19, the Toronto International Film Festival persevered in 2023. It continued to serve as a platform for filmmakers, a launchpad for Oscar campaigns, and a celebration of the power of cinema. “The Boy and the Heron” marked a poignant moment in the festival’s history, showcasing the enduring appeal of film as both a personal and global art form. As TIFF moves forward, it remains a vital event in the world of cinema, adapting to changing circumstances while maintaining its commitment to showcasing exceptional films from around the globe.

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