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Toronto's fest gives power to the people

September 04, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

What's THE surest sign that a movie is going to tank at the box office?

It's not that it stars Vin Diesel. Or is a remake of a Japanese TV show involving speed and racing. Or has anything at all to do with the Iraq war.

No, the best current indicator of a film's negligible prospects is whether or not it was picked up for distribution at a film festival. And that makes today's opening of the Toronto International Film Festival all the more fascinating.

Over the last few years, the Sundance, Cannes, Telluride and Toronto festivals have delivered an array of critical and commercial sensations. Sundance gave us "Little Miss Sunshine," Cannes marked the premiere of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Juno" was launched in Telluride and Toronto held the first showing of "Crash."

More recently, however, many high-profile festival sales -- particularly those emanating from Park City, Utah, the home of Sundance -- have failed to captivate multiplex audiences.

Among the movies sold at January's Sundance festival that have struggled to generate business are "American Teen" (domestic gross to date: $862,000), "Frozen River" ($813,000), "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" ($309,000), "Transsiberian" ($919,000), "Henry Poole Is Here" ($1.6 million), "The Wackness" ($1.9 million) and "Hamlet 2" ($3.2 million).

A number of other prominent Sundance titles either have yet to come out or have not yet sold, including "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," "What Just Happened?," "Phoebe in Wonderland" and "Sunshine Cleaning."

Like any festival, Toronto has delivered its share of big acquisition duds (last year's Toronto sales included "Boy A," which sold $114,000 worth of domestic tickets, and "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead," with receipts of $959,000), but in 2007 the festival also introduced this year's most successful specialized film release: "The Visitor."

Produced by Groundswell Productions and purchased and distributed by Overture Films, writer-director Tom McCarthy's immigration story has grossed nearly $10 million domestically. The film's performance is not only good on an absolute scale (Overture paid a little more than $1 million for the film's rights) but also on a relative one, as almost every art film has struggled at the box office this year.

"The Visitor's" success highlights one of the distinctions between Toronto and other top North American festivals.

While Sundance focuses narrowly on American independent filmmaking and Telluride typically showcases an eclectic slate of often foreign-language works tackling difficult subject matter, Toronto is populated with broad-appeal studio films (including "Flash of Genius" and "Burn After Reading") and a mix of independently financed work that, on paper at least, looks more commercial than recent Sundance and Telluride lineups.

"Toronto's track record for movies that have done business is much better than Sundance's," says Howard Cohen, whose Roadside Attractions bought the glowingly reviewed 2007 Sundance title "Starting Out in the Evening" only to see the Frank Langella drama gross less than $1 million.

"Toronto has more populist, less navel-gazing indie films," Cohen says, "and there's not that much energy in the marketplace right now for that kind of Sundance movie."

Bob Aaronson, who has been a film buyer for Netflix, Fine Line Features and Fox Searchlight, says Toronto is much more of a public festival, unfolding in a city of 2.5 million where many ticket buyers are regular moviegoers. Sundance attendees, on the other hand, narrowly spring from the movie business, and therefore may not be the best barometers of a film's prospects.

"Toronto programs many more films than Sundance does, so it's a wider range of style and size and scope," Aaronson says. "Sundance has always prided itself on finding and presenting movies that are not necessarily the most mainstream movies -- they are going to be challenging."

Buyers headed to Toronto will consider several dozen movies available for sale, many of them starring or directed by prominent filmmaking talent. The distributors of specialized films are particularly interested in "The Wrestler," a Mickey Rourke movie directed by Darren Aronofsky; "Management," which stars Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn; Charlize Theron in "The Burning Plain," from director Guillermo Arriaga, the "Babel" screenwriter; "Lovely, Still" with Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau; "New York, I Love You," a star-laden anthology; and "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond," starring Bryce Dallas Howard in a film based on a Tennessee Williams screenplay.

"I think this year's Toronto looks really promising," says Arianna Bocco, the film buyer for IFC Films. "I think there's a wider range of titles available to buy, and there seems to be something for everyone."

Lawyer John Sloss, whose Cinetic Media is representing seven films for sale at Toronto, including the Richard Linklater-directed "Me and Orson Welles," says, "Sundance has been a festival of discovery, more underdog, first-time filmmakers, where Toronto has more consistently commercial filmmaking."

But, Sloss cautions, "The Visitor" was much more of a Sundance-type movie, with few stars and a not obviously salable story line. Surprises, in other words, are often hidden in plain sight.

"No one at Toronto thought," Sloss says of "The Visitor," "that the film was going to gross more than $1 million."


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