Several unspoken-for films came into this year’s Toronto International Film Festival determined not only to find a distributor, but to set a 2014 release date. In the case of Still Alice, the touching drama of a woman’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, that plan worked spectacularly well. It had a stirring world-premiere screening on Sept. 8 in a less-visible afternoon slot at TIFF and quickly sparked Oscar buzz for star Julianne Moore, a four-time nominee who has never won.
Sony Pictures Classics presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard quickly recognized the kind of role that has Oscar written all over it, and two days later the picture sold to SPC (which, despite having its largest slate of Oscar hopefuls ever, still had an opening for a Best Actress contender). They announced that Still Alice would open in 2014, in time to qualify for the Academy Awards. Moore became an instant contender for the film directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer.
One of the most buzzed-about pictures on the fall festival circuit this year was Ramin Bahrani’s intense and pulse-pounding drama 99 Homes, with Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon giving award-worthy performances in a film set during the housing and financial crisis of 2008. It played in Venice, then Telluride.
I saw it at the latter and cornered Bahrani to ask if the film was meant for this year, should it get a distributor. He told me they had lots of interest already then but were holding back for Toronto, when the other distribution companies had a chance to see it. I know at least one mini-major was gunning for it there when it premiered the evening of Sept. 8. But for whatever reason, it went instead in a $3 million deal to upstart Broad Green Pictures, which announced it was being held for release next year. Bahrani told me in Telluride he strongly felt it should be released this year because Shannon and Garfield “would definitely be nominated.” But it’s not in the works.
The model clearly was 2008’s The Wrestler, which also debuted at Venice and sold at Toronto to Fox Searchlight, which quickly ramped up a campaign and a December release, leading to Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Actor wins for Mickey Rourke, as well as an Oscar nomination. Searchlight pulled off a similar feat the next year when it dropped Crazy Heart into the race at the last possible minute, upsetting the whole apple cart. It walked away with Oscars for Best Actor Jeff Bridges and Best Song.
Fox acquired that film in July 2009 but planned a spring 2010 opening. Once the Scott Cooper-directed film was reworked, the distributor decided it had Oscar potential and waited until early November to announce it would be a limited December opening in time to qualify.
That year, Fox Searchlight didn’t have much of an Oscar slate after coming off a Best Picture win (and awards season sweep) in 2008 with Slumdog Millionaire, so the last-minute entry plan made sense — and definitely paid off. This year with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman and Wild, there is no vacancy at their inn.
Adding yet another contender to the full slates from the usual Oscar competitors like Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and The Weinstein Company, works not only at cross purposes with the films already being promoted, but also is cost prohibitive.
So it becomes a whole lot tougher for other fall fest debutantes pining for a home and a quick jump into the race. Kevin Costner, who put his own money into writer-director Mike Binder‘s terrific, racially charged drama Black And White, is determined to see the film released this year, he told me at the reception following its TIFF premiere.
It certainly would deserve Oscar consideration not only for his performance — one of his best ever — but also for co-star Octavia Spencer. But at press time there still is no word on a distribution pickup for the movie, and that has to happen before any campaign can get underway.
The film has been showing to distributors since the spring, but Costner is being very cautious about how it should be released — and when. Further complicating matters is that this year’s Best Actor lineup is impossibly crowded, with more legitimate contenders than we have seen in many a season. Some distributors just don’t want, or need, yet another entry into that derby. So at the moment, Black And White’s chances for this year’s Oscar contest are somewhat gray.
Also in that gray area are two films aiming at the far less-crowded Best Actress race. Beyond top-tier contenders Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Felicity Jones in The Theory Of Everything and now Moore and perhaps Hilary Swank in the Western The Homesman, that race gets a little thinner and more unpredictable, with yet unseen but promising work from the likes of Oscar favorites Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain, as well as Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, which opens the New York Film Festival on Friday.
Meryl Streep is said to be a strong candidate for supporting actress in Into The Woods and IFC just announced this week that Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette (who could have gone either way) will be campaigned in supporting as well. That leaves room.
As I noted in my Deadline TIFF coverage, Jennifer Aniston wowed the Toronto audience with her powerful dramatic turn as a woman suffering from chronic pain in Cake. Initial talk after the Sept. 8 afternoon premiere (just before Still Alice) indicated lots of interest. And I am told some smaller distributors have gone after it, including indie Ketchup, which if nothing else would make for a nice trade headline (“Ketchup nabs Cake“). But so far no word on an official home for Cake, let alone whether a distributor will position it for the 2014 competition.
And this week I am told potential distributors are still viewing Shelter, another TIFF debut, which was written and directed by first-time helmer Paul Bettany and stars his wife, Connelly, and Anthony Mackie. I caught it this week at UTA’s Beverly Hills offices.
It’s an immensely powerful and provocative love story about two homeless people on the streets of New York City — each with a past that is slowly revealed. One scene would be sure to land this film, as currently edited, an NC-17 rating. But there can be no doubt Connelly turns in her finest and riskiest performance since Requiem For A Dream.
Reps involved in the film have looked at the thin landscape in the Best Actress race and surmise there could be a spot for Connelly, given a December Oscar-qualifying run. This is a big “if” at this point as no distributor has signed on. Voting actors would very likely respond to this brave portrait of a woman on the verge, and certainly to Connelly’s raw and compelling work, which transcends even her Oscar-winning supporting turn in A Beautiful Mind. Mackie also is beautifully understated in a performance of great dignity.
Writer-director Oren Moverman’s Time Out Of Mind, another movie set among NYC’s homeless community that was for sale at TIFF, features Richard Gere in a stripped-down, startling turn as a man reduced to living on the streets. It, too, does not yet have a distributor, but I am told it didn’t come into TIFF with the intention of being released for this year’s race. It gets a high-profile slot at the NYFF.
Another Moverman project, the Brian Wilson biopic Love And Mercy — which he wrote (Bill Pohlad directed) — did sell out of TIFF to Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions and features award-worthy work from Paul Dano and John Cusack, who play Wilson at different ages. But I am told this will be held for 2015.
On the other hand, Chris Rock‘s Top Five was easily the hottest sales title at TIFF, going to Paramount for over $12 million. The studio is doing a quick turnaround, opening it wide in December. But that’s a commercial play, not one necessarily done with Oscar front of mind (although Rock’s hilarious screenplay could have a shot — who knows?).
But for Black And White, Cake and Shelter, time is fast running out. It might comfort them to know that two films that also debuted and sold in September at TIFF were held back, came out in the late spring/early summer of the next year — and still went on to win Best Picture Oscars long after their initial Fall Fest heat had cooled.
They were, of course, Crash and The Hurt Locker. Sometimes it just pays to wait.