News Column

Play the Toronto film festival? It's an exacting calculation

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--To most movie fans, the Toronto International Film Festival that kicks off Thursday is simply a showcase for many of the fall's most anticipated titles.

But to the studios and filmmakers exhibiting these movies, it represents something more complicated: a set of carefully constructed strategies that seek to balance hype and expectation, prestige and populism, in the high stakes bid for Oscars and dollars.

Stars, audiences and media will gather at the city's elegant Roy Thomson Hall for the opening-night premiere of "The Fifth Estate," Bill Condon's look at Julian Assange and WikiLeaks starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the polarizing information crusader. The event marks the start of an 11-day extravaganza that in many ways shapes the fortunes of the film season ahead.

How a movie is received at Toronto goes a long way toward determining its success; in recent years, over-the-top reactions to "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Argo" sent those films on their way to box office and awards success. But the festival game -- and particularly Toronto -- has become a slipperier enterprise than ever.

At a time when social media have cranked up pre-release publicity ever louder, deciding which festival to take a fall title to -- or whether to take it to one at all -- is fraught with uncertainty. Studio marketers and awards season consultants must wrestle with such questions as:

Does exposing a movie to the glare of an unpredictable blogosphere pose too much of a risk?

Does a prime festival slot offer a stamp of quality that money could never buy? Or does it raise expectations to a level few films can actually match?

Does premiering a movie weeks or months before it comes to theaters carry much value at a time when the public can have the attention span of a mosquito?

"Everyone these days is trying to figure out the playbook," said Bob Berney, the distribution guru behind hits such as "Memento" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and whose company, Picturehouse, will bring the music film "Metallica Through the Never" to Toronto this year with an Imax presentation. "And really there is no playbook."

Toronto poses a particular appeal -- and challenge -- because of the volume of titles and the large media interest. Toronto fest chief Cameron Bailey touted that role, noting that Toronto set a record with 140 premieres last year and was likely to break it this year. "It's one-stop shopping for media, for audiences and for the business," he said.

Some movies will arrive in Toronto after playing recent festivals in Telluride or Venice, looking to build on momentum, including the Alfonso Cuaron sci-fi pic "Gravity," the Denis Villeneuve kidnapping thriller "Prisoners" and the Steve McQueen period drama "12 Years a Slave."

Other movies will be given their world premieres at Toronto (Jean-Marc Vallee's AIDS drama "The Dallas Buyers Club," Justin Chadwick's biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and John Wells' adaptation of the stage hit "August: Osage County") with an eye toward making a singular splash at this festival.

Then there are the buzzed-about fall movies that won't be at Toronto at all, hoping they can better stand out in a less crowded environment (Paul Greengrass' Somali pirate picture "Captain Phillips" and Ben Stiller's remake of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," both being given their world premieres at the New York Film Festival three or more weeks later, or other would-be contenders such as Olivier Dahan's royals drama "Grace of Monaco" and David O. Russell's con-man movie "American Hustle," which for the moment are bypassing festivals entirely).

Warner Bros. decided to wait to debut "Her," Spike Jonze's futuristic romance starring Joaquin Phoenix and due out Dec. 18. It will be given its world premiere in mid-October as the closing-night title of the New York Film Festival and avoid the buzz saw of Toronto. But unable to entirely resist the lure of the Toronto media frenzy, the studio this weekend will show footage from the film and host a talk with Jonze as part of an event it's calling a "unique interactive session" that it hopes will begin stoking anticipation for the film.

Oscars' domino effect

For years, festivals were an ancillary part of a studio's fall rollout, a way to get some early buzz going but hardly an all-important moment. Which festivals a movie played was rarely a make-or-break proposition at either the box office or the awards podium.

That began to change a decade ago, when the Oscars were moved up by about a month, giving the festivals of late summer and early fall more influence with voters, and in turn making those earlier nominations and prizes more central in shaping holiday moviegoing choices. The growing power of social media, with their instant reactions and buzz barometers, has further pumped up the volume surrounding the fall festivals.

In 2007, Focus Features debuted Joe Wright's "Atonement" to rave reviews at Toronto, then went quiet for several months before bringing out the movie in December. In 2000, "Memento" went even further, playing Toronto and eventually Sundance and a host of other festivals as part of a rollout that took nearly a year before hitting theaters.

That would be a difficult path to walk today. Instead, many movies choose to keep the time between a festival premiere and a commercial release as short as possible.

Focus last week moved the release date of awards hopeful "Dallas Buyers Club" from Dec. 6 to Nov. 1, compressing that gap. Other Toronto movies, such as "Prisoners" or Ron Howard's Formula One drama "Rush," are debuting in festivals weeks before opening commercially.

"When it comes to media for movies, there is a beast that has to be constantly fed, because otherwise the news cycle will move on to something else," said Andrew Kosove, one of the producers of "Prisoners." "Waiting isn't always an option."

When a movie does reach a festival well before its release date, studios are sometimes in the odd position of hosting a noisy premiere while simultaneously trying to keep their movie quiet. Though there will be a glitzy red carpet, the Weinstein Co. executives behind Wells' "August: Osage County," one of the few December releases to premiere at Toronto this year, have decided to limit interviews with stars Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep to ensure interest doesn't peak too soon.

Others point to a nuanced calculus that depends on the kind of movie being released.

"If you have a 'King's Speech' or a 'Slumdog Millionaire' that isn't really occupying the No. 1 slot in any pundit's list at the beginning of September, getting a lot of early exposure at a festival is really important even if you're not coming out for a few months," said Megan Colligan, head of marketing at Paramount Pictures. "But with a movie with bigger stars that you can sell more easily in a 30-second spot, or a movie really high on everyone's list, it often makes sense to wait."

The studio chose the former strategy this year with Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," a black-and-white family drama with no A-listers, taking it to the Cannes Film Festival in May, then Telluride last week ahead of its Nov. 22 release.

By contrast, the studio took a gamble last year with Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," choosing to forgo nearly all festivals until a New York Film Festival premiere in mid-October just a few weeks before its release.

The move paid off, as the movie garnered several Oscar nominations and tallied $94 million in domestic box office.

"But it's really hard to do that," Colligan said. "You sit there and all these emails are coming in about awards for other films or accolades for other actors and you think, Am I being too cute?"

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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