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A northern exposure craze

In a short Oscar season, Hollywood films vie for more attention at the showcase, probably leaving less for indies.

September 05, 2003|John Clark | Special to The Times

Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, has 11 films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. You'd think he'd be happy about that, or at least happier than he is.

"They're going to get less attention" than in years past, he says of his slate. "If 'Les Triplettes de Belleville' screens at the same time as 'The Human Stain,' the press is not going to see it. What are you going to do when you're up against star power?"

Sony Classics' adventurous French animation film "Belleville" is one of the many smaller films at this year's festival, which kicked off on Thursday and runs through Sept. 13. Those films will be competing for attention with an unusually heavy-hitting list of prestige Hollywood films, both from the studios and their boutique divisions.

Among them: Robert Benton's "The Human Stain," with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman (Miramax); Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men," with Nicolas Cage (Warner Bros.); Joel Schumacher's "Veronica Guerin," with Cate Blanchett (Disney); Jane Campion's "In the Cut," with Meg Ryan (Sony's Screen Gems); and Carl Franklin's "Out of Time," with Denzel Washington (MGM).

Bernard isn't the only one distressed by the strength of the Hollywood presence this year. IFC's Jonathan Sehring, who has four films in the festival, calls it "a valid concern." Mark Urman, president of ThinkFilm, which has seven films there, says, "It has its upside and its downside."

On the other hand, Bob Berney, head of Newmarket Films, which doesn't have a film at this year's festival, says, "Yes, I'm sure that's a concern, but I don't think it's out of proportion this year. It's always tough there." And Sehring adds, "If you look at it [the festival] to make or break your movie, you're making a mistake."

All of them agree that Toronto, which has traditionally been a launching pad for the studios' Oscar hopefuls, is the beneficiary of the change in the Academy Awards ceremony from late March to late February. With this narrower window, the launching pad is crowded, and films that in years past would have been given consideration by the press might be drowned out by the noise.

"Toronto has been after the studios for years, but they resisted because they didn't want to be ghettoized," Bernard says. This year, he says, "the festival got more than it bargained for. They didn't see it coming. They were so freaked out about SARS" --the pulmonary epidemic that swept through Toronto medical facilities last spring -- "they probably took everything they could get."

The festival's director, Piers Handling, notes, "Toronto is clearly seen as a festival where a lot of the Oscar agenda is set in terms of nominations. But I think that everybody is adopting a wait-and-see attitude. I don't think everyone is going to follow the same strategy. I think that they [the studios] will tailor the release pattern to the individual film."

More complications

It's not just the big films that are taking up space. The talent attached to them is too, especially during the first weekend of the festival, when the press junkets promoting them take place. Bernard says he doesn't have the wherewithal to keep the talent on his films in Toronto until the press gets around to speaking to them after they've had their time with Kidman and company.

Tom Ortenberg, head of Lions Gate, which has 12 films at the festival, says that of the four films that he's particularly using the festival to promote ("Wonderland," "Shattered Glass," "The Cooler," "Girl With a Pearl Earring"), the earliest public screening is Sunday evening and the latest premiere is Wednesday.

"A, it sidesteps the studio presence," Ortenberg says. "B, it gets them out there while the press is still around." Furthermore, he adds, "I think it's incumbent on all the distributors to not allow ourselves to be muscled out by the studios. We're doing a lot of grass-roots work, as if the films were just opening."

He says Lions Gate has street teams handing out fliers, they'll have a presence in bars and restaurants, and they'll be doling out such gimmicky promotional items as a 13 1/2-inch ruler to support "Wonderland," their picture about the notoriously well-endowed porn star John Holmes. ("You can't imagine how popular they are," Ortenberg says.)

Even if distributors do get a word in edgewise at this year's festival, there remains the unusually crowded fall marketplace just beyond it. These indie films literally will not be able to find screens, and if they do it will be prohibitively expensive to hold them.

According to Urman, this is an acceleration of a process already well underway. "It's very risky to open a film in the fall, especially after October," he says, and then cites an instance from last year: "Why would you go see 'Personal Velocity,' which is three conceptually related stories about three morose women, when you could see 'The Hours,' which is the same thing? Would you rather see Fairuza Balk ['Personal Velocity'] or Meryl Streep ['The Hours']?"

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