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Play the Toronto film festival? It's an exacting calculation

Toronto film festival: Studios weigh the event's promotional buzz against snarky bloggers and the dangers of peaking too soon.

September 05, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl star in "The Fifth Estate."
Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl star in "The Fifth Estate." (Frank Connor, DreamWorks…)

TORONTO--To most movie fans, the Toronto International Film Festival that kicks off Thursday is simply a showcase for many of the fall's most anticipated titles.

But to the studios and filmmakers exhibiting these films, it represents something more complicated: a set of carefully constructed strategies that seek to balance hype and expectation, prestige and populism.

Stars, audiences and media will gather at the city's elegant Roy Thomson Hall Thursday for the opening-night premiere of "The Fifth Estate," Bill Condon's look at Julian Assange and WikiLeaks starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the polarizing information crusader. The event marks the start of an 11-day extravaganza that in many ways shapes the fortunes of the film season ahead.

WATCH: Toronto International Film Festival 2013 trailers

How a movie is received at Toronto goes a long way toward determining its fate--in recent years, enthusiastic reactions to "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Argo" sent those films on their way to box office and awards success--which would seem to make a Toronto appearance a no-brainer.

But the festival game has become more slippery than ever.

At a time when social media have cranked up pre-release publicity ever louder, deciding which festival to take a fall title to — or whether to take it to one at all — is fraught with questions.

Does the abundance of media mandate maximum festival play?Or does exposing a movie to the glare of an unpredictable blogosphere pose too much of a risk?

Does a prime festival slot offer a stamp of quality that money could never buy? Or does it raise expectations to a level few films can actually match?

INTERACTIVE: From Toronto to the Oscars? Well...

And does premiering a movie weeks or months before it comes to theaters even carry much value at a time when the public can have the attention span of a mosquito?

"Everyone these days is trying to figure out the playbook," said Bob Berney, the distribution guru behind hits such as "Memento" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and whose company, Picturehouse, will bring the music film "Metallica Through the Never" to Toronto this year with an Imax presentation. "And really there is no playbook."

Toronto poses a particular appeal — and challenge — because of the volume of titles and the large amount of media interest. In an interview, festival chief Cameron Bailey touted that role, noting that Toronto set a record with 140 premieres last year and was likely to break it this year. "It's one-stop shopping for media, for audiences and for the business," he said.

Some movies will arrive here after playing recent festivals in Telluride or Venice, looking to build on momentum, including the Alfonso Cuarón sci-fi pic "Gravity," the Denis Villeneuve kidnapping thriller "Prisoners" and the Steve McQueen period drama "12 Years a Slave."

WATCH: Trailers from Venice

Others will be given their world premieres at Toronto (Jean-Marc Vallée's AIDS drama "The Dallas Buyers Club," Justin Chadwick's biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and John Wells' adaptation of the stage hit "August: Osage County") with an eye toward making a singular splash in front of hundreds of tastemakers.

Then there are the buzzed-about fall movies that won't be at Toronto at all, hoping they can better stand out in a less crowded environment (Paul Greengrass' Somali pirate picture "Captain Phillips" and Ben Stiller's remake of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," both being given their world premieres at the New York Film Festival three or more weeks later, or other would-be contenders such as Olivier Dahan's royals drama "Grace of Monaco" and David O. Russell's con-man movie "American Hustle," which for the moment are bypassing festivals entirely).

Even hybrid strategies are a possibility. Warner Bros. decided to wait to debut "Her," Spike Jonze's futuristic romance starring Joaquin Phoenix and due out Dec. 18. It will be given its world premiere in mid-October as the closing-night title of the New York Film Festival and avoid the buzz saw of Toronto.

But unable to entirely resist the lure of the Toronto media frenzy, the studio this weekend will show footage from the film and host a talk with Jonze as part of an event it's calling a "unique interactive session" that it hopes will begin stoking anticipation for the film.

Oscars' domino effect

For years, festivals were just an ancillary part of a studio's fall rollout, a way to get some early buzz going but hardly an all-important moment. Which festivals a movie played was rarely a make-or-break proposition at either the box office or the awards podium.

That began to change a decade ago, when the Oscars were moved up by about a month, giving the festivals of late summer and early fall more influence with voters, and in turn making those earlier nominations and prizes more central in shaping holiday moviegoing choices.

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