As the "world's largest public film festival," TIFF takes pride in calling itself "the friendly festival." While this might seem at first as little more than an awkward attempt at Canadian humo(u)r, the emphasis TIFF puts on its major award —the Blackberry® People's Choice award— suggests that TIFF takes this claim quite seriously.
Prior to every screening, we must suffer through one of three trailers detailing how a film that won the People's Choice award (such as American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, or The King's Speech) went on to achieve financial and critical success (quantified in terms of Academy Awards). The trailer then urges us to vote because, together, we can "Make the Next Big Film."It's still unclear to me whether the trailer is suggesting that critical taste legitimizes popular taste or the other way around. Either way, I find it telling that an attempt at some kind of symbiosis between tastes is even made (and a whole other post could be written about how this favors films with feel-good endings that encourage impulse voting).
Even more interesting still, though, is how the entire voting process is a sham — a not-so-subtle attempt to get large, heavily promoted releases by major directors some street cred heading into awards season.* The winner is determined by a simple one-ticket-one-vote system. After a screening, you simply deposit your ticket stub in a box (or enter the bar code number online) to cast your vote. The problem here is that some films are screened numerous times in 1000+ seat theaters while others are screened only once for a few hundred people. Based on the possible number of votes alone, larger releases with pre-festival buzz will fare much better than an unknown film that generates excitement at the festival itself (sorry, Leviathan, but you're going to have a tough time taking on Argo).
Furthermore, TIFF's promotion of the voting system seems completely arbitrary. Some theaters are full of voting kiosks, others have only one. TIFF personnel are sometimes present after the film reminding people to vote, but sometimes they aren't. Some screenings are preceded by a long explanation of the voting process, and others simply mention that a film is eligible. Indeed, I had no idea that an online system was even in place until one of my final screenings. And this is purely based on anecdotal evidence, but in my experience, many of the smaller films (Motorway, Shepard and Dark) were pushed much less heavily than some of the larger releases.
The problem is, I'm not sure how to fix this system (nor am I suggesting that this system is broken where other methods of choosing the 'best' film are not). A system that factors in the number of potential votes might help, but even then there would be other issues to contend with. The point, though, is that all awards are structured by logistical, industrial, political and economic decisions outside of voters' control, and the manufactured correlation between 'popular' tastes and larger-scale films serves only to naturalize a discourse that equates major releases with the desires of "the people." If TIFF really wants to live up to its mandate of "changing the way people see the world through film," it needs to rethink and re-envision (or, at the very least make transparent) the concept of People's Choice.
*This doesn't always work, but a look back at recent winners speaks for itself.