The Oscar Road Traveled By Toronto Films

The business story of the Toronto International Film Festival was a cautious resurgence of the specialty film market. But in my opinion the more compelling and even uplifting story surrounds those Toronto films now emerging as Best Picture Oscar candidates. The reason is that so many of them easily could have fallen apart in the struggle to get them to the big screen if not for the filmmakers’ admirable persistance:

127 Hours: After Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle could have taken a multi-million paycheck to direct James Bond or any of several other big budget studio films. Instead he chose to do on an indie level what Chris Nolan did on a studio level when he used his clout to direct his wholly original spec script Inception. Boyle took an upfront salary of just $666K and put all his Slumdog credibility chips on the table to make 127 Hours. The movie’s pitch — hiker amputates pinned arm with dull knife — is so preposterously non-commercial that even Boyle’s writing partner Simon Beaufoy didn’t get it until Boyle sketched out a first draft that showed the potential for a visceral and spiritually uplifting drama. “Sometimes, and this was the first time for me, you can’t explain it verbally, you have to write it down and test it on your collaborators,” Boyle said. Said producer Christian Colson: “While Slumdog was the classic underdog story — not enough money, nearly went straight to DVD, no stars, no power — 127 Hours was about seizing the day. Slumdog gave us an opportunity to make a risky film. Our struggle was not so much to raise the money, but rather to earn trust from the studio and Aron Ralston, who was understandably anxious for his story not to be Hollywood-ized. This is absolutely Aron’s story, but unmistakably Danny’s telling.” The amputation creates a marketing challenge, but test audiences are responding: at a screening last week in Orange County, the film drew high scores, even getting an “excellent” from a viewer who’d fainted.

The King’s Speech: Screenwriter David Seidler told Deadline readers about needing to respect the Queen Mother’s request and wait 28 years for her to die before he moved forward with the film. And then having to wait nearly another year for Tom Hooper to get around to reading a script that had been hand-delivered by the director’s own mother. Another aspect of his ordeal I found intriguing was Hooper’s creative choice to keep in the scene in which a frustrated King George VI (Colin Firth) is distracted from his stutter by peppering his sentences with curse words. Distribution veterans say that more than three “fucks” in a movie guarantees an R rating. In The King’s Speech, Firth “fucks” the movie out of PG-13 with one funny expletive-filled tirade.

“I’ll fight it, but I’m not changing a frame,” Hooper told me. “Everyone understood this was a non-negotiable key to the story. What a strange world we live in that Salt can open with Angelina Jolie having a tube fed down her throat, with water poured in it to drown her. I’m 37 and that scene continues to disturb me. That’s fine, but the word ‘fuck’ being used in a very humorous therapeutic context — to help a man with a stammer unblock a problem — is considered a threat. Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig having his balls smashed in, tied to that chair with no bottom, doesn’t get an R. Our film censorship is quite bizarre. Violence is acceptable while language is not, no matter the context.”

The Town: While Oscar bloggers snobbishly debate whether The Town belongs in the Best Picture discussion, I was intrigued by Ben Affleck’s personal mission in making the film. After writing a second act for himself as a director with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck in co-writing and directing The Town gave himself a meaty role he never gets offered, and reinvigorated an acting career once on life support after “Bennifer” and a string of flops. It’s no coincidence Affleck plays his best role since perhaps Good Will Hunting, the picture he wrote with Matt Damon that launched both their stars. “A huge part of this effort was me wanting to play the lead role,” Affleck told me. “I hadn’t had the chance to play a character this interesting in a long time, and in that sense it did feel like Good Will Hunting in that I viewed this movie in part as a step in my acting career.”

Affleck didn’t expect The Town to even win its opening weekend, much less provoke Oscar talk for Best Picture and Best Director. As for the lessons learned as he tried to script his comeback, Affleck said: “The only conscious decision I made was to pursue movies I thought I had a shot at being proud of, and then work as hard as possible at them. Failure is a function of risk and I understood with Gone Baby Gone, Hollywoodland, State of Play and The Town that they might just as easily work as not. The only reason Gone Baby Gone got made is Dick Cook’s willingness to pick it up out of turnaround. I’ve been lucky in having a long enough career to see what both success and failure feels like. That perspective has certainly helped align my priorities.”

Black Swan: The festival buzz on this small film has already snagged Natalie Portman an offer to star opposite Robert Downey Jr. in the Alfonso Cuaron-directed Warner Bros film Gravity. (But I don’t think she’ll do it). It has also put Darren Aronofsky reportedly in a conversation to direct X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2 and Superman. All this from a movie that flatlined more than once over its decade-long odyssey.

Producer Mike Medavoy bought the script 10 years ago when it was called The Understudy, an All About Eve-style drama about an obsessive theater actress. After Pi, Aronofsky wanted in, but Medavoy balked because the upstart filmmaker insisted on final cut and the producer feared it would scare away studios. Aronofsky remembered the project years later when he scored a Universal deal, optioned it and redrafted the story to its ballet backdrop. Medavoy was simultaneously working with Aronofsky on a Robocop remake at MGM that should have been Aronofsky’s next film. Then MGM froze spending and Black Swan became his next film. But even with Portman attached, Universal dropped it and everyone else turned it down, except Overnight Productions’ head Rick Schwartz. Overnight delivered $1.5 million to fund pre-production but them 3 weeks before the start of production, Overnight was abruptly out. (Schwartz said the company was forced to delay its investments because of the discovery of suspicious terms given to another picture.)

Whatever the reason, the timing was nearly fatal to Black Swan, its only hope that CAA Independent agent Roeg Sutherland could find another backer in a terrible market. “There came a day when, if we didn’t get a wire transfer, the movie was dead,” Medavoy said. “Roeg Sutherland saved Black Swan, period.” Schwartz helped by turning his initial investment into an interest-free loan, money Overnight will only get back if the film is a big hit. After a number of turn downs, Sutherland convinced Cross Creek’s Brian Oliver to put up half the $16.3 million budget. Oliver took a real risk by cash-flowing the film without a contract. That kept the picture afloat until Fox Searchlight agreed to fund the other half, a commitment that didn’t come until Black Swan was 3 weeks into production.

Medavoy has seen it all in 45 years as an agent, exec and producer, and says Black Swan parallels the rocky road traveled by other Oscar films he has viewed up close like Rocky, Dances with Wolves, Platoon, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “All those other films were turned down, too, either because Sylvester Stallone wanted to be the star, or because nobody wanted a Western or a Vietnam movie, or because Jack Nicholson died at the end of the picture,” Medavoy said. “The common thread there and with Black Swan is luck and persistence. I give a lot of credit to Darren, a tough guy whose passion and fire didn’t waver, even when the picture was a breath away from falling apart.”

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