Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
BART: Have you noticed, Mike, that the gamesmanship of pre-festival season is often more entertaining than the fest movies themselves? Toronto has slammed the door on distributors who were sneaking their films into Telluride, then billing Toronto screenings as World Premieres.
FLEMING: Labor Day Weekend for me is about getting kids back to school and squeezing the last moments of a summer that has flown by. I have never been to Telluride because the last thing I want to do is spend that holiday weekend in a succession of dark rooms in Colorado. Toronto is my favorite festival. It's a wonderful platform for distributors to acquire films after seeing how they play to an audience, and to launch the ones they have into the Oscar season corridor.
I have never understood why Toronto organizers waited so long to stop offering prime festival World Premiere berths, only to be undercut with sneak screenings in Telluride. They've taken it in the spirit of supporting indie film, but they must feel as frustrated as when you stand in a long line and watch someone brazenly cut in front.
This is Toronto’s moment to show that a beautiful city has more going for it than electing a crack-smoking mayor. If you’ve promised your movie for an exclusive World Premiere at Toronto in the first six days, that ought to mean it's the first time the film has been seen by an audience on Planet Earth. Despite what our Telluride aficionado Pete Hammond and zealots like Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker and Tom Bernard will surely argue, films that don’t don't stay frosty until Toronto shouldn't premiere in those first few days when the entire industry is rapt for discoveries. Other films would kill for those slots. Maybe Telluride should run right after Toronto.
BART: Telluride is like a security blanket for Oscar hopefuls; blissed-out audiences are orgasmic about everything they see. Last September’s high-altitude film lovers anointed Inside Llewyn Davis as a sure-fire awards winner, leaving later audiences to discover that it was a stiff. This year Jon Stewart is praying for that kind of love for his debut film, Rosewater.
FLEMING: I want to see Rosewater and find out why it meant enough to Jon Stewart that he took a leave of absence from berating conservatives on his Daily Show.
The bleak subject matter makes it perfect for the cerebral Telluride set. I saw Llewn Davis at Cannes, and loved it like everyone else there; killing at a festival is no guarantee of big box office or awards hardware.
I remember when the Fox Searchlight team saw Shame in Telluride and by the time they landed in Toronto, they'd closed a deal to launch into Oscar season. They figured Steve McQueen, Cary Mulligan and especially Michael Fassbender would get nominations that would fuel a strong theatrical run. Shame is best remembered for being so bleak that Oscar ignored it, and for Fassbender shattering a myth this Irishman had bought into, that all Irishmen are genitally challenged. Without the Oscar love, Shame fell flaccid. Maybe you are onto something with the effect of high altitude on Telluride audiences.
BART: When films play Toronto, reality sets in. Toronto audiences are polite (they’re in Canada) compared with often gruff Cannes crowds. Folks are angry in Cannes because they know they’re over-paying for everything. Toronto and Telluride are relative bargains.
FLEMING: I have fallen in love with movies right along with Toronto crowds, then wondered why they didn't fare better. I loved John Carney's Can A Song Save Your Life last year. I watched buyers stream past me in the lobby, as they raced to crunch numbers to make a bid in an auction that would go all night.
I thought it was a sure-fire 2014 Best Picture nominee, that Maroon Five front man Adam Levine would launch as an actor, and that audiences would be as seduced by Keira Knightley's singing voice as was Mark Ruffalo's record exec character. This was Jerry Maguire fused with Love Actually, with potentially cringe-worthy lines landing perfectly. Retitled Begin Again, the film has done okay on the specialty circuit, so far grossing twice the $7 million The Weinstein Company paid for it, and reaching $27 million globally. But Love Actually grossed $60 million here and $240 million globally. Did I overrate that film? I watched the Wikileaks pic The Fifth Estate get a good opening reaction and then flat line, but then again, I have seen films like Moneyball and The King's Speech soar after Toronto premieres. These unseen films come at you one after another, and there is always something that's going to make you drop your guard and fall in love.
BART: The Telluride bookings have worked for films like Argo and The Descendants. But this year David Fincher’s film, Gone Girl, will be unveiled at the New York Fest while The Judge, with Robert Downey Jr., will play Toronto. Telluride clearly will have to work harder to sell its bliss to Oscar gurus in the future.
FLEMING: If Toronto really digs its heels in, Telluride is in trouble. If you have to miss the first six days of Toronto, after which buyers and sellers leave, you might as well stay home.
Fincher successfully launched The Social Network at the New York Film Festival, which has also been a wonderful showcase for films like Ang Lee's Life Of Pi and before that films like Pulp Fiction (I'll never forget them stopping the film because a diabetic passed out after John Travolta plunged the adrenaline needle into Uma Thurman's heart). The Judge seems perfect for the Toronto movie lover crowd, with three great actors going mano a mano in Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton. The competition between Toronto, New York and Venice is ferocious; why should Telluride get a pass?
BART: New topic. The most surreal media spectacle last week, Mike, was the overkill coverage of Ferguson, Missouri, where twenty ‘protesters’ were often cavorting in front of three times that number of TV crews. Some cops understandably felt that protesters were simply playing for the cameras. I personally covered the Watts riots in 1965 as a reporter for The New York Times; there were five or six other newspaper reporters but it was hard to find a camera or TV crew. Still the demonstrators were loud and lethal. Bullets flew along with rhetoric. Passions were fueled not by TV but by anger over deeper injustices.
FLEMING: All 24/7 news networks overkill a story, but the situation in Ferguson is an example of where media really helps ensure that worthy stories don’t get swept under the rug, as nearly happened in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Media does an important job, even if their cameras impact how protesters and cops behave. The one that got to me this week was the chilling footage of kidnapped journalist James Foley being murdered in cold blood by ISIS militants, which has President Obama seriously considering shelling their strongholds in Syria. What a scary bunch this is, kidnapping women, and chasing religious minorities in Iraq and forcing them to convert to Islam or be murdered. This brought back the nightmare of Daniel Pearl, in Technicolor. These journalists are so courageous, risking their lives to chronicle urgently important world events.
BART: By the way, watching the coverage at Ferguson I grew weary of CNN reporters complaining about an occasional flying rock or whiff of tear gas. My car in 1965 had four bullet holes.
FLEMING: Your war stories humble me. I recall once arguing with the valet at some Beverly Hills eatery about a scratch on my rental. Rarely do you see high drama covering the movie business. I am not worthy.