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Taking the show to Toronto

Studios will screen top new films at North America's chief mainstream festival.

August 21, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Next month, Tom Ortenberg, head of Lions Gate Films, will be taking 12 films he considers award-worthy to the Toronto International Film Festival. He will not be alone, because the principal North American festival for mainstream films will be even more significant this year for studios hoping to gain an edge in Hollywood awards-season awareness.

Traditionally valued for its evolving acquisitions market and its strategic year-end timing for launching prestige movies, the Toronto festival matters more to studio heads this year on both fronts, owing partly to a shortened Academy Awards viewing season and partly to a disappointing season at Cannes.

"Because the academy has moved up their date [to Feb. 29 from the end of March], it makes screening that much more important," said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who is bringing 11 films to Toronto. "When the date was further back, a lot of people who had films opening in December wouldn't feel it was necessary.... Opening closer to the Toronto date makes it easier for a lot of companies to say, 'OK, we can premiere it in Toronto,' " he said.

"There's a feeling among some, that may increase the importance of the Toronto Film Festival," Ortenberg said.

Bob Berney, head of Newmarket Films, said, "Because the market in Cannes was soft, people are hoping [Toronto] will be good this year." Newmarket doesn't have a new film to release this fall, he said, so "we're looking at Venice and Toronto to pick up a film for next year."

Like Berney, Lions Gate's Ortenberg will be on the prowl for undiscovered gems that don't yet have a distributor.

So far, the 336-film Toronto lineup, announced this week, looks impressive, Berney said. (About 60% of the 252 features are in languages other than English.) "There's 'Bright Young Things,' a British film; an Iranian film, 'Abjad,' that I heard was really good; and 'A Good Lawyer's Wife,' from South Korea. There's been buzz on that."

Newmarket scored last year by snapping up the New Zealand film "Whale Rider," which had been added to the Toronto lineup at the last minute. Berney paid less than $1 million for the film, which has grossed more than $14 million so far, he said.

Lions Gate last year acquired "Cabin Fever" in Toronto. It will be released Sept. 12.

Other Lions Gate films in this year's festival, which runs Sept. 4 to 13, include world premieres of "Girl With a Pearl Earring," "Shattered Glass" and "Wonderland." The closing gala film will be "Danny Deckchair," from first-time director Jeff Balsmeyer. Ortenberg said Lions Gate will release the Australian romantic comedy next year in North America.

Also in the lineup is Jane Campion's erotic thriller "In the Cut," starring Meg Ryan, who reportedly has some steamy sex scenes. The film is from Sony's Screen Gems.

Films from major studios include MGM's "Out of Time," starring Denzel Washington and directed by Carl Franklin ("High Crimes," "Devil in a Blue Dress"); Disney's fact-based "Veronica Guerin," with Cate Blanchett and directed by Joel Schumacher; "Matchstick Men" from director Ridley Scott, with Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman; and Richard Linklater's "The School of Rock," starring Jack Black.

Shrugging off fears of power blackouts or SARS, many top stars are scheduled to attend, including Blan- chett, Cage, Washington, Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, two of whose films will be shown: "The Human Stain," in which she appears with Hopkins, and Lars von Trier's controversial "Dogville."

Ortenberg said Toronto is always a good place to show a film, not only to kick off awards season but also because audiences are friendlier than those in industry-heavy Cannes and Sundance. "It's a great people's festival."

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