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'Hollywood North' Toronto Film Fest Has Its Timing Down Pat


TORONTO — For 10 days every September, this city--usually so button-down and orderly that it was known for decades as "Toronto the Good"--uncorks its inhibitions a bit, pushes back bar closing times at strategic locations and dubs itself "Hollywood North" for what has become the starriest, flashiest and most commercially influential film festival in North America.

For much of the populace, the Toronto International Film Festival, which closes Saturday with the film "That Thing You Do!," Tom Hanks' directing debut, is a frenzy of moviegoing and celebrity watching. But for executives from Hollywood and the rest of the film world, the festival, now in its 21st year, has become an important launch pad for fall releases as well as a point of discovery for often obscure independent and overseas filmmakers.

This largely reflects the design of festival organizers. Festival director Piers Handling and managing director Suzanne Weiss have simultaneously courted Hollywood and international movie executives while keeping the festival accessible to the public. It's a balancing act few other festivals manage so well.

"There's a great chemistry of having a lot of very commercial films; a lot of special, smaller films; and getting a lot of audience and media exposure as a result," said Martin Schweighofer, managing director of the Austrian Film Commission and veteran of the last three festivals.

From Hollywood's viewpoint, the festival also benefits from timing--just before the studios' fall releases--and location--a multicultural though mainly English-speaking metropolis of more than 2.5 million people right on America's doorstep.

"Toronto has played the game very shrewdly," Ian Birnie, director of the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a former festival official, said in a telephone interview. "For studios, there's an opportunity to launch a film at the beginning of the autumn in a big way; it fits in perfectly with their needs as marketers."

Meanwhile, the festival also benefits from the presence of major stars, who generate media presence, publicity, ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.

Paramount Pictures, for example, selected Toronto to premiere "Mother," a generational comedy directed by and starring Albert Brooks that marks Debbie Reynolds' first major film role in 25 years. The movie is scheduled for a Christmas release.

"Toronto is timed perfectly," said Barry London, outgoing vice chairman of Paramount's motion picture group. "It gives you a chance to start a buzz or a publicity campaign in what we consider a very positive atmosphere."

"Mother" premiered to big laughs and great applause Saturday night in the 2,100-seat auditorium that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra vacates for the duration of the festival. Brooks and Reynolds charmed reporters--nearly 500 media representatives are accredited--during a news conference earlier in the day.

Hollywood is well represented at this year's festival, which features 273 films from 70 countries.

The studios are here with high-profile releases such as Warner Bros.' "Michael Collins" and MGM's "Two Days in the Valley." HBO and the Showtime cable network also have productions on exhibition.

In addition, a number of movie stars have turned up with films they directed or produced. In addition to Hanks and Brooks, they include Kevin Bacon, Matthew Broderick, Cher, Emilio Estevez, Anjelica Huston, Demi Moore, Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey. Actress-model Elizabeth Hurley makes her debut as a producer with tonight's showing of "Extreme Measures," which stars her boyfriend, Hugh Grant, and Gene Hackman and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Broderick, who directed and co-stars with Patricia Arquette in "Infinity," a love story based on the early life of physicist Richard Feynman, said he was drawn here in part by the Toronto audience, renowned for its enthusiasm.

"People here are open to movies that maybe aren't as traditional or commercial as usual," he said. " . . . Never mind all the business reasons for coming to Toronto. It's just fun to come and celebrate this. It's nice to see it with an audience that really likes movies."

"I've very rarely seen a bad screening at Toronto," said Robert Lantos, chief executive of Alliance Communications Corp., Canada's largest film and television producer. "At Cannes, there's a risk that audiences can turn against a film and destroy its commercial potential. . . . In Toronto, the audience comes prepared to like the films."

Festival director Handling makes a similar point in citing Toronto's support for independent, Canadian and foreign filmmakers. Last year, "Antonia's Line" from the Netherlands won the audience vote as favorite film, got a North American distributor and went on to win the Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

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