HAMMOND: Oscar Contenders Jockey For Prime Film Fest Exposure – Or Not

Toronto: Pitt’s ‘Moneyball’, Madonna’s ‘W.E.’, Clooney’s ‘The Ides Of March’ Make Cut
Stillman’s ‘Damsels In Distress’ To Close Venice
With today’s announcement of the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival lineup (or at least the first phase of titles) and the imminent announcement Thursday of the Venice International Film Festival lineup, the buzzing about Oscar possibilities — at least as far as the all-important Fall Festival circuit is concerned — is off and running, even with five weeks to go before Venice and Telluride’s increasingly important Labor Day weekend festival get the six-month season off to its official launch. As for that latter fest, we will have to wait until Sept. 1, the day before it opens, to find out what potential Oscar goodies it might have in store.

There is indeed a pecking order in the way these announcements are made, and the reason Telluride does not go the splashy weeks-in-advance press conference route like Toronto (this year’s dates: Sept. 8-18) and Venice (Aug. 31-Sept. 10) do — as well as October’s New York Film Festival — is because it doesn’t mind keeping its lineup secret and not labeled as “World” or “North American” premieres in return for actually getting the movies and their filmmakers to attend the oh-so-cool movie geek fest (my fave) high in the Colorado mountains. Studios and distributors who participate in Telluride are sworn to secrecy as to their plans as usual (one publicist was even afraid to admit to me they weren’t going for fear of retribution), but that can’t keep us from some informed speculation which Oscar hopefuls will be making the trip there as well as to the other fests. Last year, you may recall Telluride was the first North American stop for The King’s Speech, 127 Hours and Black Swan among other big Oscar titles.

Strategies abound as to which festival is right for your film, and jockeying will continue long after these announcements and right up to festival time. A wrong decision can be deadly for a film’s potential marketing and awards campaign, which is why studios and distributors are so cautious about jumping into the early fall festival waters, particularly, as in many cases this year, where the film isn’t even scheduled until the holiday season.

What was interesting about today’s Toronto list was not so much what was included but what wasn’t. My colleague Mike Fleming in his story about the announcement intriguingly speculated that Focus Features’  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might have been left off because it may be going to lead off the New York Film Festival, which demands complete exclusivity for their opening-night film on Sept. 30. Last year that fest scored big by grabbing the true world premiere of The Social Network, which became an instant Oscar player. There is no official word yet on anything NY Fest-related for Tinker Tailor (which is said to have major awards bait in Gary Oldman’s lead performance in the John le Carre film adaptation), but  its world premiere will be at Venice largely because its UK and Ireland opening date of Sept. 16 is far ahead of other territories such as the U.S. (Nov. 18) and a Venice unveiling was a necessity due to the timing of the Euro launch. I have learned Tinker Tailor will not be making a stop in Toronto. Incidentally, another strong potential for the NYFF opening (or closing) slot might be Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. Eastwood is a favorite there, and the film’s Oct. 21 release date would fit nicely into the NY Fest’s timeline and Warner Bros’ marketing plans.

Also conspicuously missing from today’s Toronto announcement was Paramount’s eagerly awaited Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody and starring Charlize Theron in a performance said to have some awards potential. I would have bet this film (which Paramount just dated for Dec. 9) would show up in Toronto, but I have confirmed it definitely won’t be riding the fest circuit — a first for Reitman. Don’t look for it in Telluride either despite being Reitman’s “good luck” festival where future Best Picture nominees Juno and Up In The Air had wildly successful unofficial premieres. Last year, Paramount’s The Fighter skipped the fest circuit entirely (except for an unadvertised sneak intro’d by Mark Wahlberg at the AFI Fest in November) and went on to win two Best Supporting Oscars and a Best Pic nom.

On the other hand, I would bet the ranch that Fox Searchlight’s George Clooney-starrer The Descendants from director Alexander Payne, announced today as one of Toronto’s World Premieres, will also likely have a warm-up fest run in Telluride, where Payne is a favorite and former guest programmer. Clooney’s own directorial effort, The Ides of March (the screen adaptation of the play Farragut North, in which he also has a starring role), will likely hopscotch from its Venice opening-night world premiere straight to Toronto.

Also missing from the initial Toronto list and any speculation about Venice is Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady, which will likely hold off emulating the route The Weinstein Company’s eventual Best Picture The King’s Speech followed last year as it kicked off in Telluride and Toronto. Since the film doesn’t open until Dec. 16 in the U.S. and the logistics of getting Streep to go on the fest circuit is challenging, I would think Harvey Weinstein might want to wait. The film is still in post-production, another drawback, and I have heard Harvey is worried about competing with himself as Madonna’s W.E. (also tipped for Venice) and Cannes sensation The Artist are going to have major unspoolings in Toronto — to name just two Weinstein Co. products on the circuit. The Artist, a new silent film, would seem to be a no-brainer as well for Telluride, which caters to classic silents as part of its programming.

Among Toronto’s most intriguing “gets” are the world premieres of Roadside’s Glenn Close Oscar hopeful Albert Nobbs; Jim Field Smith’s Jennifer Garner/Hugh Jackman Capra-esque comedy Butter; Fernando Meirelles’ 360 with Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins and Rachel Weisz; Friends With Kids from Jennifer Westfeldt, starring Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig among others; and Bennett Miller’s (Capote) baseball yarn Moneyball with Brad Pitt, the project started by Steven Soderbergh before he had a parting of the ways with Sony just before production was to begin. Luc Besson’s world premiere of The Lady is also one to watch with what I have been told is a world-class Oscar nomination-bound performance by Michelle Yeoh as Burma’s national heroine Aung San Suu Kyi. The film needs a distributor though before it can jump into this year’s Oscar race.

A good number of the Toronto titles will have first premiered at Venice, likely including Steve McQueen’s (Hunger) second film, Shame,  Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method  which all have some Oscar potential, at least on paper.

Two films tipped only for Venice include the movie Soderbergh did make (and which I have seen), Contagion, a tight thriller with an all-star cast caught up in a world health catastrophe. It screens on the fest’s second day and will open in the U.S. on Sept. 9. Another film currently scheduled only for Venice is Roman Polanski’s screen adaptation of God Of Carnage, now called simply Carnage, which Sony Pictures Classics is hoping has Oscar potential for stars Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly. Other fests it may turn up at are still a question (or least being kept quiet so far), in part due to the ability of its director to attend I would imagine.

Of course the Fall Fest circuit will also include a number of movies and stars with Oscar potential that we already saw in Cannes including Tilda Swinton in We Need To Talk About Kevin; Drive with Ryan Gosling and an award-worthy supporting turn from Albert Brooks; Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In; as well as several Sundance refugees including Focus Features’ well-reviewed Pariah, which I am told is definitely going to be added to the Toronto lineup in upcoming announcements.

The list of potential awards fodder goes on and on, but many of these films first need to find distributors, so its unlikely a large number of them will show up in this year’s race. Last year, Rabbit Hole was a rare exception that came into Toronto distrib-less; it left holding hands with Lionsgate and eventually nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nod for Nicole Kidman.

The first bell in the 2011 Oscar race has been rung, and we will keep following it as the contenders start to pile up.

  1. Good overview Pete on Toronto and other festivals, but one note – you wrote that Rabbit Hole was a rare film that came to Toronto without a US distributor. That’s not true at all – something like 80% or more of the films are shown without one, including usually half of galas and a good chunk of the “Specials”, usually the most commercial of the festival’s sections.

    Rabbit Hole was unusual in that it had no distributor and still managed to acquire one and open by the end of the year – something that usually at most one film from Toronto does each festival.

  2. The sad truth is an Oscar nom doesn’t mean what it used to. In the past, it meant quite a boost in box office (especially domestic) since the Oscars turned so heavily political, these “Oscar bounces,” get smaller and smaller every year, making it hard to justify the cost of going to the festivals and campaigns.

    In the end, the audience decides. It always decides. Hollywood and its political wings are learning that lesson hard, even now.

  3. Do any of you have information as to the status of Geoffrey Fletcher’s Violet and Daisy? Post production started months ago. In which festivals will the film appear this fall?

  4. Not surprising –

    The King’s Speech and Black Swan combined have grossed close to $750 million worldwide theatrically, with further revenues accrued by both films pushing them over $1 billion.

    They both were Oscar winning films launched at festivals.

    Care to reconsider your post? It was way too sweeping.

    That such financial heights can be reached by pushing for Oscars is why so many films keep getting pushed.

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