The Impact of the Toronto Audience Award on the Oscar race

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Over the weekend, the Toronto International Film Festival gave out its extremely prestigious Audience Award, a prize that’s often considered to be a harbinger of future Oscar success. To one degree or another, almost all movies that win the prize tend to receive some level of Academy Award attention. The award is highly sought after and a number of films were thought to be in the running at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Well, for those of you who don’t know which flick took the prize, I’ll save that for a little later in the article, but right now I want to get into what the Audience Award means and which titles were thought to be eying it up in a big way.

Historically, the Audience Award at Toronto has really been a signifier for the Academy, especially of late. The award was first given out in 1978, with 1981’s Chariots of Fire really starting the trend of Oscar taking notice of what wins this prize. Since then, we’ve seen (in alphabetical order) The Big Chill, Places in the Heart, The Fisher King, Shine, Life is Beautiful, American Beauty, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Amelie, Hotel Rwanda, Eastern Promises, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, The King’s Speech, Silver Linings Playbook, and 12 Years a Slave among the winners, with all going on to be nominated in some regard by Academy voters. That trend shows no signs of slowing down in 2014.

This year, TIFF had a number of contenders seemingly in play. Early on, it seemed like prior 2014 festival success stories like Foxcatcher and Whiplash were potential favorites, while Telluride fave The Imitation Game began to make noise as well. A little later on in Toronto, St. Vincent and Theory of Everything emerged to give us five likely contenders for the Audience Award. By the time Sunday rolled around, any of them could have easily been able to claim that they were the frontrunner for the crown (though some had tipped St. Vincent as the one with the best chance overall). Only one could win though, and the audience members were about to have their say in the matter.

Ultimately, the winner of the Audience Award was The Imitation Game, with out of nowhere Learning to Drive the first runner up. The second runner up was St. Vincent, which as mentioned above was considered to potentially even be a likelier winner than The Imitation Game. This was a big win for the biopic that stars Benedict Cumberbatch, as it was hoping to become the main player out of Harvey Weinstein’s stable over at The Weinstein Company. Now, it’s all but assured itself of major Oscar buzz for the rest of the awards season. See how much a little Audience Award can do when it goes to a certain type of film? It really can wind up making all the difference in the world, at least in relation to how the Academy might wind up voting.

There have been years where the victor here didn’t go on to Oscar success, but more often than not it’s due to them being either a documentary, a foreign film, or not a presumed contender to begin with. This bodes very well for The Imitation Game, I must say. It doesn’t guarantee any wins, but nominations do seem to really be in the cards for it now.

The other flicks that didn’t win the prize certainly aren’t out of the running, and St. Vincent especially can take solace in that runner up citation, but The Imitation Game is the one that really helped itself out the most. Audience members didn’t need to overtly choose a feel good movie, instead going for something powerful and perhaps even “important” to them. That’s something that you really can’t discount…

We won’t know how this turns out for a few months now, but if you’re looking for tangible proof that something is a player, you have it here. The Imitation Game has a real boost here, so until other contenders receive something similar, that’s going to count for quite a bit in my book. Stay tuned to see how it all plays out during the full awards season though!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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