Fox Searchlight brought its Sundance pickup and Oscar hopeful, The Sessions, to the Toronto International Film Festival today to kick-start the film’s October launch. (Now set for October 26 but very possibly moving up a week to the 19th). Last January, the film debuted under the title The Surrogate and immediately sparked early 2012 awards talk, particularly for the performances of John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. It’s a small but surprisingly funny and ultimately quite touching film that drew so many big laughs at today’s Elgin Theatre screening the dialogue was drowned out during some scenes, usually those between Hawkes and William H. Macy. There were three standing ovations for the director and principal stars, a very enthusiastic response to be sure.

Fox Searchlight Co-Presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley were there and said after the Sundance sale no cuts were made to the film and none requested by the MPAA in order to get the ‘R’ rating (for some explicit but tastefully shot sexual content).

Gilula notes that with so many movies competing for attention at TIFF it’s tough for a movie that debuted at Sundance or Cannes. Media, he says, just want to spotlight the newest movies even though this one doesn’t even open until next month. At this point it is the mini-major’s only fall/holiday release, and it’s hoping to build strong word of mouth and awards attention. The studio is still trying to determine whether to push Hunt for lead or supporting. (The Oscar winning star of As Good As It Gets could probably slip comfortably into either slot.) Fox Searchlight also have summer releases Beasts Of The Southern Wild  and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on their potential awards plate. And there still is the possibility of a last-minute contender coming in December if they decide to rush Hitchcock.

The Sessions is a true life story: Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a then 38-year-old-man confined to an iron lung. He enlists the help of a sex surrogate played by Hunt. The documentary short, Breathing Lessons: The Life And Work Of Mark O’Brien, won an Oscar in 1996. But this film deals specifically with O’Brien’s sexual adventures, and director Ben Lewin (disabled himself by polio from a young age) told me at the Soho House Searchlight reception that he was surfing the net looking for material for a possible comedy series about a horny disabled guy. “I was searching for sites like ‘Gimp Girls Gone Wild’ and that sort of thing when I came across this magazine article, and I knew then this was going to be my next movie,” Lewin told me.

Hawkes said he had a big pile of scripts after his Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, including some higher paying studio projects. But this little indie was the only one he wanted to do after the Oscars. On the surface the role would seem quite challenging.  Hawkes shared his concern with Lewin that the role should probably be played by a disabled person. Lewin assured him he did conduct a casting search but couldn’t find someone with the qualities Hawkes brought to the role. Recalls Hawkes: I fell in love with the script and was surrounded by terrific actors so it wasn’t that hard.”

Hunt says she’d never heard of this kind of sexual surrogate before taking on the role. Then she studied extensively with the real-life inspiration for her character, Cheryl Cohen Greene. Hunt and Hawkes didn’t have much rehearsal time  and didn’t really know each other. “We still don’t really know each other now. But that was perfect. In an unspoken way we were looking out for each other,” she said. Hawkes added that shooting a love scene is always awkward anyway.

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As for Hitchcock, it’s said to have awards-worthy performances from Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson. The Best Actor category where Hopkins would have to compete is really competitive this year, but there is room in lead and supporting actress categories. Utley says they will make a decision on this within the next two weeks.

Of course there’s precedence: Fox Searchlight’s Crazy Heart came out of nowhere 3 years ago and took Oscars including one for Jeff Bridges. Last year, Searchlight bought Shame off the Fall Fest circuit and opened it in time to qualify (although Michael Fassbender failed to get a Best Actor nomination). As for this year’s fest, Utley told me she and Gilula have not yet seen films they are interested in buying.

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