Toronto: Cord Jefferson’s ‘American Fiction’ Wins Audience Award

Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction picked up the top People’s Choice honor Sunday at the Toronto Film Festival, which wrapped up a 48th edition with little Hollywood star wattage amid the uncertainty of dual Hollywood strikes.

Jefferson’s feature directorial debut, an adaptation for Orion of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, had its world premiere in Toronto at the Princess Alexandra Theatre on Sept. 8. MRC is the film’s studio and financier.

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The American drama about U.S. racial dynamics portrays a Black academic, played by Jeffrey Wright, who grows frustrated that the only “Black books” that seem to find a wide (and white) audience are those that tread on stereotypes.

“My gratitude towards everyone who watched American Fiction [and] discussed it afterwards among friends and colleagues is endless. The film is now in your hands, and I’m so grateful that it was embraced in this way,” Jefferson said in a statement Sunday morning.

The American director’s film grabbed TIFF’s top audience award and is considered a barometer of future Academy Award nominations, but that comes with an asterisk this year for a Toronto festival heavily impacted by the dual Hollywood actors and writers strikes.

The first runner-up for the top audience award is The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti and newcomer Dominic Sessa, and the second runner-up is The Boy and the Heron from Japanese anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, which opened Toronto on Sept. 7.

Previous TIFF audience award winners — including Room, La La Land12 Years a Slave and Nomadland — received a lift from the normally celebrity-drenched Canadian festival on their way to Academy Award wins.

But not this year as the entertainment industry faces an ongoing crisis from the strikes. The unveiling of winners Sunday was a muted affair after TIFF — overshadowed this year by Venice and Telluride as never before due to local Torontonians having come to expect an army of Hollywood A-listers on its red carpets — had few American stars on red carpets or glitzy after-screening parties during its Sept. 7 to 17 run.

The People’s Choice Awards are voted on by TIFF attendees. Participants could not vote more than once online using their email address, as TIFF measured the origin of each vote and matched it to the festival’s ticket-buyer information and database.

The People’s Choice award for best documentary went to Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, directed by Robert McCallum. The first runner-up is Jen Markowitz’s Summer Qamp, and the second runner-up is Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa from director Lucy Walker and picked up by Netflix earlier in the festival.

The audience award for best Midnight Madness title at TIFF went to Larry Charles’ Dicks: The Musical, which stars Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally and Megan Thee Stallion. The first runner-up in that category is Nikhil Nagesh Bhat’s Kill and the second runner-up is Hell of a Summer from co-directors Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk.

The ongoing labor action by members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Writers Guild of America led to members being barred from touting their latest films in Toronto and other fall film festivals unless their producers had signed interim agreements.

In juried prize-giving, Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s Dear Jassi, a drama set in India that had projection problems in Toronto during a world premiere, won the Platform prize, and the FIPRESCI prize went to Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature Seagrass.

Elsewhere, Jayant Digambar Somalkar’s debut feature A Match picked up the NETPAC award for the best Asian film at TIFF, and the top Short Cuts prize went to Daria Kashcheeva’s Electra.

In other juried prize-giving, the Amplify Voice Awards went to Henri Pardo for the Haiti-set drama Kanaval and co-directors Carol Kunnuk and Lucy Tulugarjuk for Tautuktavuk (What We See). The best Canadian feature film prize as picked by a TIFF jury went to Sophie Dupuis’ Solo, a queer drama set in Montreal’s drag queen scene that stars Theodore Pelletier.

TIFF juries also gave the Changemaker Award to Minhal Baig for We Grown Now, a coming-of-age tale set in a public housing complex in 1992 Chicago.

On the film sales front, few deals were unveiled in Toronto as the strikes and SAG-AFTRA restrictions kept buyers from either traveling to Toronto or making deals for acquisition titles on the ground.

Netflix picked up Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut, Woman of the Hour, for around $11 million after a world premiere at the festival and also acquired the worldwide rights to Lucy Walker’s documentary Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa.

Otherwise, no other major deals were announced at TIFF, which has always relied on selling finished films rather than presales packages.

Buyers remained mired in the stalemate at the bargaining table between the major studios and streamers and Hollywood actors and writers.

Sales agents also left their stars for acquisition titles at home as deals with major buyers like Netflix, Apple or Amazon or any platform aligned with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers looked elusive heading into the 48th edition.

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