ZAMM.COM: Toronto Talk

By Martin Grove,

Toronto talk: What happens in Toronto doesn't stay in Toronto--and that's why Hollywood loves the Toronto International Film Festival.

The 38th Annual TIFF, which opened Sept. 5 and will run through Sept. 15, has in recent years emerged as the premiere film festival launch pad for Oscar hopefuls. Its early-to-mid September platform is perfect timing to put films on track for consideration by awards voters. A high profile launch at Toronto that receives critical acclaim and an enthusiastic audience reception instantly puts a movie on the radar screens of the Motion Picture Academy for Oscars, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for Golden Globes and the British Academy for BAFTA's.

Understandably, indie filmmakers looking for domestic distribution deals and indie distributors eager to start an Oscar buzz for their acquisitions, automatically head to Toronto where they'll do anything and everything to be noticed. Filmmakers with really hot films wind up in post-screening negotiations through the night with competing distributors, running from one hotel suite to another to knock out a deal before the next flavor of the festival is screened and catches everyone's interest.

With some 300 films screening at TIFF, it's absolutely impossible for anyone to see all of them. However, media people and acquisitions executives who went to earlier festivals in Cannes, Venice and Telluride benefit from having a good head start since some films playing in Toronto made earlier appearances at those festivals.

Pre-Toronto festival screenings make sense because for awards hopefuls the first move in the game is to arrive at Toronto with enough pre-awareness to get the right people to make time to see your film. It, therefore, can be a winning strategy to play first in late August at the Venice Film Festival and then go directly to Colorado's Telluride Film Festival.

Since Telluride's a movie fan driven festival and never announces in advance what's going to be screened, films can get away with playing there and still hold their official world premieres elsewhere.

There are risks, however, in early festival participation because if your film doesn't screen well it will be DOA by the time you hit Toronto. On the other hand, if it performs well there will be heightened interest in seeing it because people already know the title and have been hearing about it. That's a lot better than being one of 280 other pictures they haven't heard about yet. Another risk is that if a film is greeted with an over-abundance of critical acclaim it may find it hard to live up to that when it goes into release weeks later. In fact, great festival success can prompt some critics to take a contrarian approach that hurts ticket sales when a movie opens.

But in some cases a film that didn't initially appear to be an awards contender can turn into one thanks to festival success. A case in point is the dramatic thriller Prisoners, from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who directed the Oscar-nominated foreign language film Incendies. The films stars Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The supporting cast also boasts a high awards profile with Viola Davis, Terrence Howard,  Melissa Leo, Maria Bello  and  Paul Dano.

Prisoners, which world premiered at TIFF Sept. 6, had an earlier sneak preview screening at Telluride that generated exactly the right kind of media buzz to catapult it onto awards potential lists. Villeneuve's a big fan of Telluride, having come there three years earlier with his mystery drama Incendies, which became Canada's official entry and a nominee in Oscar's the 2011 foreign language competition. Among Incendies' many other awards were Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and Best Canadian Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Clearly, Villeneuve's high profile in Toronto going back to Incendies will be helpful to him now in putting his new major studio film, Prisoners, in the TIFF spotlight. It also will help him in his efforts to launch a second smaller film at Toronto, Enemy, a thriller drama he directed before Prisoners, which also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, playing two look-alike roles. In the case of Enemy, Villeneuve's looking to make a distribution deal and his high profile at TIFF should help him get the job done.

Besides Prisoners, prominent awards contender in Gravity also had its North American Premiere at TIFF Sept. 7 after world premiering Aug. 28 as the Venice festival's opening night film. Directed by Oscar nominee Alfonso Curaron, the 3D sci-fi thriller stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Gravity attracted global media attention at Venice and became one of the first titles to show up on Oscar handicappers' lists of early best picture contenders. That automatically makes it a must-see title at TIFF. With its A-List stars, who are the film's only two actors on screen, Gravity will not have to worry about Academy members making time to see it.

That, of course, is a matter of big concern to many if not most of the awards hopefuls trying to generate attention at TIFF. After all, voters don't vote for movies they haven't seen so the most important thing awards marketers must do is make the voters feel a movie is worth two or more hours of viewing either in a screening room or, at least, on a DVD screener at home.

The films that emerge from Toronto with good profiles will be seen early and, therefore, won't have to compete for screening time with December's late arriving contenders whose strategy is to be seen last so they're fresh in mind when voters cast their ballots.

Reading the awards blogosphere of online Oscar pundits it's clear that there are many more potential best picture Oscar contenders this year than in the recent past. Between indie distributors, who for many years have dominated the awards arena, and the major studios, who've gotten back in the business of competing seriously for Oscars, TIFF is jam-packed with more awards wannabees than anyone could manage to see given conflicting screening schedules.

Here's a  look at some profile films playing at TIFF that seem a safe bet to hit the awards track and wind up in the Oscar spotlight.

The Fifth Estate The TIFF opening night presentation is directed by Bill Condon, who won the best adapted screenplay Oscar in 1999 for Gods and Monsters, which he directed. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The R-rated drama opens in limited release Oct. 11.

August: Osage Country Directed by John Wells, the film is based on the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts and stars Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch. Streep has won three Oscars and been Oscar nominated 14 other times since 1979. Oscar handicappers typically expect her to be nominated now for any performance she gives. The R-rated drama opens Dec. 25 in limited release.

12 Years a Slave  Directed by Steve McQueen, the film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man from upstate New York who's captured and sold into slavery in this pre-Civil War drama. The film's brutal slave owner is played by Michael Fassbender. Brad Pitt, one of Slave's producers, has a small role as a Canadian abolitionist. The very busy Benedict Cumberbatch is among the film's other supporting actors. The R-rated Slave opens Oct. 18 in limited release.

After first making a major impact at Telluride and then doing the same at TIFF, Slave is being talked about as posing serious Oscar competition to the PG-13 rated biographical drama Lee Daniels' The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. The critically acclaimed Butler placed second last weekend with about $9 million after three weeks in first place, and has a cume of nearly $92 million. Winfrey was a supporting actress Oscar nominee in 1986 for Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple and is widely expected to be Oscar nominated again for Butler. Whitaker won the best actor Oscar in 2007 for his performance in The Last King of Scotland.

Labor Day Directed by Jason Reitman, the film stars Kate Winslet as a single mom who gives a ride to a wounded drifter (Josh Brolin) not knowing he's an escaped con being hunted by the police. The PG-13 rated drama opens in exclusive runs Dec. 20 and goes wide in January.

Rush Directed by Ron Howard, the R-rated biographical drama stars Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth as 1970s Formula One race car driving rivals. The film's exposure in Toronto will not only help position it for Academy attention, a natural given Howard and producer Brian Grazer's longtime high awards pedigree, but will also help promote it when it open immediately afterwards in exclusive runs Sept. 20 and then goes wide Sept. 27.

Dallas Buyers Club Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as a Texas electrician diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986 and fighting the medical establishment as he seeks alternative treatments. Also starring are Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto and Steve Zahn. The R-rated drama opens exclusive runs in New York and Los Angeles Nov. 1.

Bottom line: There are several hundred other films playing at TIFF and it would take a book to provide just a few paragraphs about each of them. Although most will fall by the wayside as the awards season progresses, a few are bound to emerge as contenders. Every awards season seems to bring a few surprises that capture voters' interest and affection.

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