The 9/11 anniversary was a strong memory in Toronto because it happened right in the middle of 2001’s film festiva — even though it was business as usual today. In fact the pace of this place just seems to be quickening. Deals, as Deadline’s Mike Fleming reports, were slow to percolate but may be picking up. Most buyers I talk to are irritated by some sellers’ insistence that their film be released this year in time for Oscar consideration. That’s a tall order and leaves little time for creating a marketing campaign, much less an awards strategy. Nevertheless, that was one of the demands made by the sellers of the controversial Shame during negotiations. Fox Searchlight agreed, others didn’t. In fact I was told that Sony Pictures Classics, which wanted the picture, came up with a smart strategy they compared to The Weinstein Company’s for Colin Firth. That consisted of Firth doing a lot of campaigning and earning a nomination for A Single Man in 2010, thus laying the groundwork for his The King’s Speech win the next year. SPC was going to put Michael Fassbender out there and get him recognition for their November release of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and then release Shame later in 2012 for a one-two punch that the Academy would notice. No go. The sales people behind Shame insisted it be released this year, thereby throwing the Venice Film Festival’s Best Actor winner into an already overcrowded awards race that among others includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio who are better known — at least at this point.
One former studio head-turned-producer complained loudly to me today that this kind of strategy is not necessarily what’s good for the movie and asked, “Isn’t that what we should be concerned with over anything else?” For example, Open Road’s Tom Ortenberg is here with his first release Killer Elite but is not rushing into a year-end release if it might end up hurting the bottom line. “Isn’t the 2012 Oscar race just as good as this year’s?” he asked. He might consider putting the Liam Neeson film The Grey into a year-end qualifying run since Neeson’s performance is said to be so strong. But only if it was in the best interest of the film. When he was at Lionsgate, Ortenberg acquired Crash at Toronto but held it for a May release. Then he did a now-legendary and successful Oscar campaign almost 1 1/2 years after the Toronto buy. The same strategy worked for The Hurt Locker two years ago. Both went on to win Best Picture.
Nevertheless, several films for sale in Toronto are said to be eyeing a 2011 release in order to get into the Oscar race. These include Luc Besson’s The Lady, which premieres Monday night and which I have already seen. It contains two powerhouse performances from Michelle Yeoh who could jump into the lead actress race. There’s also David Thewlis for Supporting Actor. The Lady will certainly be part of any sales discussion, but I know of at least one mini-major who would like the film but just not for this year. As I mentioned yesterday, Barrymore with its sensational title performance from Christopher Plummer also wants to make a deal that includes a 2011 year-end release. Also director Zhang Yimou’s epic The Flowers of War (formerly Nanking) starring Oscar-winner Christian Bale had a 20-minute footage presentation here and hopes to get a domestic deal in place in time for a possible year-end run at Oscar. I am told it could certainly be ready what with its debut in Beijing in December.
Before its screenings began in earnest, reps for Oren Moverman’s gritty drama Rampart told me they, too, wanted to get the film out before the end of the year even though no one has bitten — yet. Woody Harrelson is said to be excellent, but word around Toronto today was that the movie needed work. That complicates its chances of getting an awards run. (As one major exhibitor told me, “The first 30 minutes really work, but then it falls off a cliff.”)
I don’t know what the dream release dates are for the two acquisition titles I saw today. But someone should quickly grab Jennifer Westfeldt’s (Kissing Jessica Stein) heartfelt and hilarious Friends With Kids in which she stars, directs, writes, and also produced with longtime boyfriend Jon Hamm. (He has a choice dinner table scene in the film.) It is a breakthrough movie for the male lead Adam Scott as well as a smart and commerical comedy. Also playing well today was Julian Farino’s wickedly funny holiday-season-set comedy The Oranges and would be a good bet for the indie scene since the cast includes Hugh Laurie, Leighton Meester, Allison Janney, Oliver Platt, and Catherine Keener among others. It was good to get some laughs on such a somber day. For a change, because some of the stuff here makes you want to slit your wrists.
Two films had their official world premieres tonight. At the Soho House there was a pre-screening dinner for Albert Nobbs star Glenn Close, looking great in Armani and nothing like her repressed character in the movie. The actress is still pinching herself (even after Telluride) that she was finally at this point after 15 years of trying to bring to the screen this period tale of a woman who has to pass as a man in order to survive. Both Close and co-star Janet McTeer likely will receive Oscar nominations for their transformative roles. They both got a big laugh when I suggested they were the best screen pair since Butch and Sundance. “I’m Butch and you’re Sundance,” Close said to McTeer, who replied “No, I think I’m Butch and you’re Sundance.” Roadside’s Howard Cohen is releasing the film around Christmas and says at this point he is waiting to see reaction to tell if there are other nominations for the picture. He says the company reluctantly got into the Oscar game (due to costs). But with the success last year of Winter’s Bone and Biutiful, he knows how to play it effectively and be in it strongly again this year.
Relativity Media picked up the night’s other world premiere, Machine Gun Preacher, when Lionsgate couldn’t release it this year. Again, the producers wanted to be part of the Oscar conversation. (Doesn’t everyone?) Based on the rousing and prolonged standing ovation it received here, they may be right. The story about drug-dealing biker Sam Childers who finds God and goes to war-torn East Sudan to help orphans struck a nerve at its unveiling at the Roy Thomson Hall. I spoke to Childers at the post-reception and he made the movie to bring attention to the atrocities in that part of the world. He’s excited about the film “only if it can make a difference in Darfur and Sudan. Then I will be happy it got made.” Star Gerard Butler told me it was a passion project for him and a unique opportunity to portray someone who really has made a difference. Co-star Michelle Monaghan gave a lot of credit to director Marc Forster while playing Childer’s wife, Lynn. “It was a real eye-opening challenge. She’s not like me at all. She’s amazing.” Writer Jason Keller told me penning the script was a long four-year journey during which he had to win the trust of Sam — not an easy task. I suggested the film’s title might be misleading since it indicates an action flick rather than serious drama. But the title is actually Childers’ nickname. One title Keller liked better, Another Man’s War, wasn’t considered strong enough. Relativity is taking it out slowly starting September 23.
Sony Pictures Classics threw a massive late-night 20th anniversary party Sunday with co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard soaking up the attention at Spice Route. Earlier in the day, director Jonathan Demme conducted a special “Mavericks” conversation with the SPC pair, who have been with Sony for two decades now and before that with Orion Classics. They are currently riding high with the mega-indie success of Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris and have David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Roman Polanski’s Carnage, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and numerous other foreign-language entries this fall. During our conversation, Demme brought out several of the pair’s celebrated directors and collaborators — Cronenberg, Agnieszka Holland, Terence Davies, Gus Van Sant and others — and presented them with anniversary gifts. Avid hockey fan Bernard got a signed Bobby Orr jersey, while John Wayne fan Barker got an original Japanese movie poster of the classic She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Their reaction to the event? “This was our life up there,” said Barker.