ZAMM.COM: Fall Festivals

 
By Martin Grove, ZAMM.com



Fall festivals: We're heading from summer into fall, but Hollywood's moving into the Awards Season.

From now until Oscar envelopes are opened Feb. 22, studios and specialty distributors will spend many millions of dollars competing to win awards from Academy members, other industry groups and film critics.

The first step in establishing serious contenders in key categories like best picture, director, acting and screenwriting is to generate an early buzz through screenings at fall film festivals. In recent years, Hollywood's perfected the approach of kicking off the awards season with attention-getting premieres at high profile festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. Festivalgoers' reactions help start ongoing conversations about films' awards potential.

While this weekend's box office focus will be on openings like Relativity Media's R-rated action thriller The November Man, the awards focus will be on the 71st annual Venice International Film Festival. Some 55 films, including 20 playing in competition, will be shown to festivalgoers and the global media crowd from Aug. 27 – Sept. 6.


November, directed by Roger Donaldson, opens Aug. 27 at about 2,400 theatres. It stars James Bond icon Pierce Brosnan as an ex-CIA operative returning to action for a personal mission pitting him against a one-time pupil in a deadly game involving top CIA officials and the Russian president-elect.

November's tracking best and equally well with men under and over 25. Its wide competition opening Aug. 29 includes Universal's R-rated horror thriller As Above, So Below, at about 2,500 theatres, which is tracking best with under-25 males; and Columbia's 30th anniversary reissue at about 750 theatres of the 1984 PG fantasy comedy Ghostbusters, which is tracking equally well with men under and over 25 and women over 25.

Meanwhile, on the Lido in Venice an array of quirky indie movies from filmmakers around the world will compete for the festival's prestigious top prize, the Golden Lion.

This year's lineup of in-competition films hasn't generated much excitement from Hollywood handicappers who blog about awards prospects. One film with some encouraging early interest is Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's dark comedy drama Birdman from 20th Century Fox and Regency Enterprises, which is the festival's opening night selection.

Birdman, opening in the U.S. Oct. 17 via Fox Searchlight Pictures, stars Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton. It's about a down-on-his luck actor facing ego and family problems while mounting a Broadway play to hopefully restore his former glory.

Also playing in competition at Venice and drawing some early attention is David Gordon Green's drama Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino, Chris Messina and Holly Hunter. Set in a small Texas town, it's about a locksmith who never got over the love of his life. No U.S.  distribution is in place yet, so a Golden Lion win could be very helpful in moving forward. Pacino, by the way, will also be seen in Venice in the out-of-competition drama The Humbling from Millennium Films. Directed by Barry Levinson, it stars Pacino, Greta Gerwig and Kyra Sedgwick.

There's also a good early buzz about some other out-of-competition Venice titles, including Peter Bogdanovich's comedy She's Funny That Way, starring Imogen Poots, Jennifer Aniston and Lucy Punch; and Joe Dante's horror comedy Burying the Ex, starring Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene and Alexandra Daddario. Both films are looking for U.S. distribution, so starting a great buzz in Venice would be very useful.

Also looking for a distributor is James Franco's out-of-competition drama The Sound and the Fury, based on the classic William Faulkner novel, starring Franco, Seth Rogen and Joey King. The film will world premiere at Venice and have its North American premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Franco will be on hand in Venice to receive the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory award for innovative filmmaking. Franco's a Venice veteran after premiering his biographical drama Sal about the life of actor Sal Mineo there in 2011, promoting his performance in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers in 2012 and promoting his performance in Gia Coppola's Palo Alto in 2013.

Unfortunately, Venice juries--this year's jury chair is composer Alexander Desplat--tend to embrace films that don't get very far with Academy members. For instance, last year's Golden Lion went to the Italian documentary Sacro GRA. In 2012 the winner was the Korean drama Pieta. 2011's winner was the Russian drama Faust. Sofia Coppola's Somewhere won in 2010. There's a few days overlap between the glamorous Venice event and Colorado's film buff focused 41st annual Telluride Film Festival, which runs from Aug. 29 – Sept. 1.

Telluride never announces its lineup of films in advance, but this year because of issues between Telluride and the much bigger Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), whose 39th annual edition takes place from Sept. 4 – 14, it's possible to predict a few titles that could play at Telluride.

That's because early this year TIFF festival director Piers Handling and artistic director Cameron Bailey revealed a new policy barring films from playing during the 11-day TIFF's key first four days if they'd already played at Telluride. The change also meant that films couldn't say they were world premiering at TIFF if they'd already held so-called "sneak-preview" screenings at Telluride.

Awards watchers believe TIFF's new rules stemmed in part from unhappiness about last year's showings at Telluride of 12 Years a Slave and Gravity prior to their so-called North American premieres in Toronto. Both films were already the talk of Hollywood by the time they played at TIFF. They went on to become top Oscar contenders for Best Picture and directing, with Slave winning picture and Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron winning directing.

TIFF is also thought to be unhappy that other recent best picture Oscar winners had also played at Telluride prior to their Toronto showings – like Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King's Speech (2010) and Argo (2012).

This year TIFF won't be diminished that way because distributors must choose between the two festivals, at least if they want to play during TIFF's first four days when attendance and media coverage are at their peak.

Analyzing TIFF's announced schedule provides a reasonable basis for speculating that what's not going to be playing in Toronto might well be playing in Telluride.

One possibility is Columbia Pictures and QED International's World War II action drama Fury, directed by David Ayer, who wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch. Starring are Brad Pitt, Logan Lehrman and Shia LaBeouf.

Fury's set in April, 1945 as the Allies make their final push into Europe. Pitt plays a battle-hardened army sergeant commanding a Sherman tank called Fury with a five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines and facing overwhelming odds as they try to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

Since it's not showing at Toronto, Fury could premiere at Telluride--or it could hold off and play a little later at the fall's final high profile film festival, the 52nd annual New York Film Festival, which runs from Sept. 26 – Oct. 12. At this point, its only announced festival showing is as the closing night selection Oct. 19 at the BFI London Film Festival.

Reportedly two other high profile potential Oscar contenders will be skipping the early fall festivals as part of their awards marketing strategies. Christopher Nolan's action adventure Interstellar from Paramount, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures opens Nov. 7. Starring are Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Casey Affleck.

Angelina Jolie's biographical drama Unbroken, opens Dec. 25 from Universal and Legendary Pictures. Starring are Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson and Jai Courtney.

By not playing with the rest of the early festival pack, these titles could command more attention later on. That strategy worked well last year for Paramount's The Wolf of Wall Street from director Martin Scorsese, which wound up with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director, although it didn't take home any Oscar gold.

As for what else might turn up at Telluride, the usual pattern for the awards-oriented specialty distributor Sony Pictures Classics is to world premiere its contenders in May at the Cannes Film Festival and then hold their North American premieres at Telluride.

This year's SPC slate at Telluride is likely to include Bennett Miller's drama Foxcatcher, starring Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Michael Hall, which sparked major Oscar talk at Cannes; and Mike Leigh's biographical drama Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson and Dorothy Atkinson.

Also, Andrei Zvyagintsev's drama Leviathan, starring Vladimar Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov and Elena Lyadova; and Damian Szifron's comedy drama Wild Tales, starring Rita Cortese, Ricardo Darin and Nancy Duplaa.

There's also been talk that Venice's opening night selection Birdman might hold its North American premiere at Telluride. It's already scheduled to be the closing night selection Oct. 12 at the New York Film Festival.

While Telluride prides itself as being a grassroots style event geared to about 5,000 film fans looking to relax and watch movies in the sleepy remote Colorado mountains, Toronto's a sophisticated industry giant. Telluride's much loved by movie buffs, but it's not--and apparently doesn't want to be--the kind of well oiled industry machine Toronto's become. TIFF's a bustling, crowded urban event where lucrative film distribution deals get done after intense all-night bidding wars for pictures that just screened. TIFF is where films emerge ready to spend whatever it takes to go after Oscar gold on the strength of how well they were received. And TIFF is the kind of festival that puts films that are about to be released domestically in the media spotlight at just the right time.

That's the smart marketing strategy Paramount Pictures is using for its new drama Men, Women & Children, directed by Jason Reitman. The film's ensemble cast includes Kaitlyn Dever, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ansel Elgort, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris and Adam Sandler.

Men, which isn't going to play at Telluride, will have its world premiere Sept. 6 at TIFF. Paramount will open it in limited domestic release Oct. 1, after which it will expand Oct. 10 and go wide Oct. 17.

Its storyline follows a group of teens and their parents as they try to navigate the many ways in which the Internet has changed their lives.

All told, TIFF will present 393 films, including 285 features. There will be 143 world premieres and 73 North American premieres. That's way too many films to do justice to here, but here's a quick look at a few key titles.

Toronto's opening night selection Sept. 4 is the world premiere of Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures' drama The Judge from  director David Dobkin, which opens domestically Oct. 10.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays big city lawyer Hank Palmer, who returns to his childhood home where his estranged father, the town's judge (Robert Duvall), is now suspected of murder. Hank sets out to learn the truth, reconnecting along the way with the family he left years earlier.

Toronto's closing night film (Sept. 14) is the British period piece romantic comedy drama A Little Chaos, directed by Alan Rickman and starring Kate Winslet, Rickman and Stanley Tucci. At this point, it's looking for a domestic distributor, which could result from it being in the media spotlight at TIFF.

Winslet plays a landscape artist hired to create the gardens at the as yet not completed royal palace of Versailles. The assignment brings her into the world of not only the French architect Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), but France's Sun King, Louis XIV (Rickman).

Edward Zwick's biographical drama Pawn Sacrifice about chess star Bobby Fischer stars Tobey Maguire in the title role and Liev Schreiber as his opponent Boris Spassky. At this writing, no domestic distribution deal's yet in place, but world premiering at TIFF could help change that.

Noah Baumbach's comedy drama While We're Young stars Amanda Seyfried, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. The story revolves around an uptight documentary filmmaker and his wife whose lives loosen up after they befriend a free-spirited young couple. Here, too, no domestic distribution deal is set yet, but TIFF world premieres have been known to fix things like that.

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylon's drama Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d'Or in May at the Cannes Film Festival, will have its North American premiere at TIFF. Starring are Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen and Demet Akbag. No domestic distribution deal is in place at this point.

In Sleep, an ex-actor runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his young wife, with whom he has a stormy relationship, and his sister, who's suffering from a recent divorce. In winter when the snow starts falling, the hotel turns into a shelter, but also becomes an inescapable place that fuels their animosities.

First time feature director Theodore Melfi's PG-13 rated comedy St. Vincent from The Weinstein Company and Chernin Entertainment will world premiere Sept. 5 at TIFF. It's guaranteed to be in the Toronto media spotlight since its star, Bill Murray, will be on hand for a mini-festival showing that day of some of his earlier hits--including Stripes, Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters. Murray will do a Q&A with audience members after the screening of St. Vincent to discuss his new film as well as his career.

St. Vincent, which opens domestically Oct. 24, also stars Naomi Watts and Melissa McCarthy. Its story centers on a 12 year old boy who, after his parents divorce, finds an unlikely friend and after-school mentor in his curmudgeonly neighbor, St. Vincent de Van Nuys (Murray).

Bottom line: The next stop after Toronto on Hollywood's awards railroad is New York where some additional high profile contenders will be seen at the 52nd annual New York Film Festival (NYFF).

David Fincher's mystery thriller Gone Girl from 20th Century Fox and Regency is the festival's opening night selection Sept. 26. Girl,starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike and Neil Patrick Harris, opens domestically Oct. 3, so the global media attention for its world premiere will hit with perfect timing just as its marketing campaign kicks into high gear.

In Girl, Nick Dunne (Affleck) reports his wife (Pike) has gone missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. In the face of police pressure and a growing media frenzy, Nick's portrait of their blissful marriage crumbles. Before long, everyone's asking, "Did Nick Dunne kill his wife?"

I'll focus in detail in an upcoming column on what else will be playing at NYFF.

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