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The fest effect

'Slumdog's' success has some eyeing that same path for a front-runner.

November 18, 2009|Christy Grosz

When "Slumdog Millionaire" premiered at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival, audiences cheered for the uplifting story about a kid from the Mumbai slums who wins big on a game show. After it went on to take home the coveted Audience Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film's award season performance went on to mirror that of its winning main character.

Ultimately, "Slumdog" took home eight Oscar statuettes, including the one for best picture, which, for many people, further solidified the film festival's Oscar-auguring powers. But veterans of the circuit say that, while the attention movies and talent receive at film festivals is important, the "Slumdog" bullet train was an anomaly: Festivals represent just one cog in the overall award season machine.

For Toronto, "it always depends on what movies are screened," says Rob Friedman of Summit Entertainment, which picked up director Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war drama, "The Hurt Locker" -- a film many believe is an Oscar contender -- at that festival last year. "Toronto is a great publicity opportunity, but I don't necessarily believe that it's a critical element in an academy season."

But many believe this year's "Slumdog" could turn out to be Lee Daniels' "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," which so far has taken top prizes at Sundance and Toronto but was snubbed by the Gotham Independent Film Awards.

While "Precious" could still go on to become the juggernaut "Slumdog" turned out to be, it's just too early to tell. Toronto and Telluride, poised at the beginning of academy season in September, didn't solidify the race in a significant way because there are still several studio pictures yet to be seen, says James D. Stern, who produced "An Education," a Sundance pickup. "The Oscar race is more murky because I think people are waiting to see what is 'Avatar' really going to look like, what is ['The Lovely Bones'] really going to look like."

In fact, "Bones" and the highly anticipated Clint Eastwood project "Invictus" weren't on the circuit at all, which is why academy strategist Cynthia Swartz says some pundits place too much emphasis on festivals. "What they do is help the Oscar bloggers figure out what's going on," Swartz says. "I don't think your average academy member is paying attention to what's shown at Toronto. Many films that don't go to these festivals have done very well."

One Way Out Media's Tom Ortenberg agrees that Toronto shined a spotlight on a few films this year but did little to bring clarity to the race. "There were a lot of award-caliber pictures that played in the festival, but I think 'A Single Man' and 'A Serious Man' were probably the award season discoveries at Toronto," he says, adding "Up in the Air" as another potential contender.

The market component of festivals such as Sundance, Cannes and Toronto can have a halo effect for award fodder too. For example, "A Single Man" was able to capitalize on the press that the Weinstein Co.'s immediate pickup generated at Toronto. Weinstein, in turn, went into campaign overdrive for Colin Firth's performance in the Tom Ford-directed picture. In a very similar way, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei earned Oscar nominations following "The Wrestler's" almost-immediate pickup at Toronto last year.

In many ways, the most important role any festival serves is getting the industry to see the films that are out there. "It's a forum where a lot of movies have a chance to first be exposed," Friedman says. Up till then, he says, "with 'Up in the Air' and 'The Men Who Stare at Goats,' people have been talking about them and not had the ability to see them."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

FILM FESTIVAL WINNERS

Here's a look at some of the winners at recent festivals.

TORONTO

People's Choice Award: "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

SUNDANCE

The Grand Jury Prize -- U.S. Dramatic: "Precious"

The World Cinema Jury Prize -- Dramatic: "The Maid (La Nana)"

The Audience Award -- U.S. Dramatic: "Precious"

The World Cinema Audience Award -- Dramatic "An Education"

A Special Jury Prize for Acting: Mo'Nique, "Precious"

CANNES

Palme d'Or: "The White Ribbon"

Grand Prix: "A Prophet"

Jury Prize: "Thirst" and "Fish Tank" (tie)

Best actor: Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds"

Best actress: Charlotte Gainsbourg, "Antichrist"

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