Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 09-09-13

“Prisoners” – In theaters September 20th

“Prisoners” – In theaters September 20th

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in “Gravity”

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in “Gravity”

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Toronto talk: What happens in Toronto doesn't stay in Toronto – and that's why Hollywood loves the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF, as the festival is known for short, began its 38th annual edition Sept. 5 and will run through Sept. 15. It's emerged in recent years as the premiere film festival launch pad for Oscar hopefuls. Its early-to-mid September platform is perfect timing to put films on track for consideration by awards voters. A high profile launch at Toronto that receives critical acclaim and an enthusiastic audience reception instantly puts a movie on the radar screens of the Motion Picture Academy for Oscars, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for Golden Globes and the British Academy for BAFTA's.

Understandably, indie filmmakers looking for domestic distribution deals and indie distributors eager to start an Oscar buzz for their acquisitions, automatically head to Toronto where they'll do anything and everything to be noticed. Filmmakers with really hot films wind up in post-screening negotiations through the night with competing distributors, running from one hotel suite to another to knock out a deal before the next "flavor of the festival" is screened and catches everyone's interest.

With some 300 films screening at TIFF, it's absolutely impossible for anyone to see all of them. However, media people and acquisitions executives who went to earlier festivals in Cannes, Venice and Telluride benefit from having a good head start since some films playing in Toronto made earlier appearances at those festivals.

Pre-Toronto festival screenings make sense because for awards hopefuls the first move in the game is to arrive at Toronto with enough pre-awareness to get the right people to make time to see your film. It, therefore, can be a winning strategy to play first in late August at the Venice Film Festival and then go directly to Colorado's Telluride Film Festival.

Since Telluride's a movie fan driven festival and never announces in advance what's going to be screened, films can get away with playing there and still hold their official world premieres elsewhere.

There are risks, however, in early festival participation because if your film doesn't screen well it will be DOA by the time you hit Toronto. On the other hand, if it performs well there will be heightened interest in seeing it because people already know the title and have been hearing about it. That's a lot better than being one of 280 other pictures they haven't heard about yet. Another risk is that if a film is greeted with an over-abundance of critical acclaim it may find it hard to live up to that when it goes into release weeks later. In fact, great festival success can prompt some critics to take a contrarian approach that hurts ticket sales when a movie opens.

On the other hand, in some cases a film that didn't initially appear to be an awards contender can turn into one thanks to festival success. A case in point is Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment's dramatic thriller “Prisoners” from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who directed the Oscar-nominated foreign language film “Incendies.” Starring are Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman ron (“Les Miserables”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”).

The film's supporting cast also boasts a high awards profile with Oscar nominated Viola Davis (“The Help”,“Doubt”), Oscar nominated Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”), Oscar winner Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”), Golden Globe nominee Maria Bello (“A History of Violence”,“The Cooler”) and BAFTA nominee Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood”).

"Prisoners," which World Premiered at TIFF Sept. 6, had an earlier sneak preview screening at Telluride that generated exactly the right kind of media buzz to catapult it onto awards potential lists. Villeneuve's a big fan of Telluride, having come there three years earlier with his mystery drama "Incendies," which became Canada's official entry and a nominee in Oscar's the 2011 foreign language competition. Among "Incendies'" many other awards were Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and Best Canadian Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Clearly, Villeneuve's high profile in Toronto going back to "Incendies" will be helpful to him now in putting his new major studio film, "Prisoners," in the TIFF spotlight. It also will help him in his efforts to launch a second smaller film at Toronto, "Enemy," a thriller drama he directed before "Prisoners," which also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, playing two look-alike roles. In the case of “Enemy,” Villeneuve's looking to make a distribution deal and his high profile at TIFF should help him get the job done.

Besides "Prisoners," Warner Bros. has another prominent awards contender in “Gravity,” which had its North American Premiere at TIFF Sept. 7 after world premiering Aug. 28 as the Venice festival's opening night film. Directed by Oscar nominee Alfonso Curaron (“Children of Men”), the 3D sci-fi thriller stars Oscar winners Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”) and George Clooney (“Syriana”).

"Gravity" attracted global media attention at Venice and became one of the first titles to show up on Oscar handicappers' lists of early best picture contenders. That automatically makes it a must-see title at TIFF. With its A List stars, who are the film's only two actors on screen, "Gravity" will not have to worry about Academy members making time to see it.

That, of course, is a matter of big concern to many if not most of the awards hopefuls trying to generate attention at TIFF. After all, voters don't vote for movies they haven't seen so the most important thing awards marketers must do is make the voters feel a movie is worth two or more hours of viewing either in a screening room or, at least, on a DVD screener at home.

The films that emerge from Toronto with good profiles will be seen early and, therefore, won't have to compete for screening time with December's late arriving contenders whose strategy is to be seen last so they're fresh in mind when voters cast their ballots.

Reading the awards blogosphere of online Oscar pundits it's clear that there are many more potential best picture Oscar contenders this year than in the recent past. Between indie distributors, who for many years have dominated the awards arena, and the major studios, who've gotten back in the business of competing seriously for Oscars, TIFF is jam-packed with more awards wannabees than anyone could manage to see given conflicting screening schedules. Here's a quick look -- in no particular order – at a half-dozen high profile films playing at TIFF that seem a safe bet to hit the awards track and wind up in the Oscar spotlight.

  • “The Fifth Estate” (DreamWorks/Disney), TIFF's opening night presentation, is directed by Bill Condon, who won the best adapted screenplay Oscar in 1999 for “Gods and Monsters,” which he directed. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The R rated drama opens in limited release Oct. 11.
  • “August: Osage Country” (The Weinstein Company) is directed by John Wells, is based on the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts and stars Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch. Streep has won three Oscars and been Oscar nominated 14 other times since 1979. Oscar handicappers typically expect her to be nominated now for any performance she gives. The R rated drama opens Dec. 25 in limited release.
  • “12 Years a Slave” (Fox Searchlight Pictures and New Regency) is directed by Steve McQueen (“Shame”) and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man from upstate New York who's captured and sold into slavery in this pre-Civil War drama. The film's brutal slave owner is played by Michael Fassbender. Brad Pitt, one of "Slave's" producers, has a small role as a Canadian abolitionist. The very busy Benedict Cumberbatch (see "August" and "Fifth" above) is among the film's other supporting actors. The R rated "Slave" opens Oct. 18 in limited release.

    After first making a major impact at Telluride and then doing the same at TIFF, "Slave" is being talked about as posing serious Oscar competition to The Weinstein Company's PG-13 rated biographical drama (“Lee Daniels' The Butler,”) directed by Lee Daniels (an Oscar nominee in 2010 for directing “Precious,” a best picture nominee) and starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. The critically acclaimed "Butler" placed second last weekend with about $9 million after three weeks in first place, and has a cume of nearly $92 million. Winfrey was a supporting actress Oscar nominee in 1986 for Steven Spielberg's “The Color Purple” and is widely expected to be Oscar nominated again for "Butler." Whitaker won the best actor Oscar in 2007 for his performance in “The Last King of Scotland.”
  • “Labor Day” (Paramount) is directed by Jason Reitman, an Oscar winner in 2008 for directing “Juno” and in 2010 for directing “Up in the Air,” a best picture nominee, and co-writing its adapted screenplay. Oscar winner Kate Winslet (“The Reader”); stars as a single mom who gives a ride to a wounded drifter (Josh Brolin) not knowing he's an escaped con being hunted by the police. The PG-13 rated drama opens in exclusive runs Dec. 20 and goes wide in January.
  • “Rush” (Universal Pictures/Imagine Entertainment/Cross Creek Pictures) is directed by Ron Howard, an Oscar winner in 2002 for directing “A Beautiful Mind” a best picture nominee. The R rated biographical drama stars Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth as 1970s Formula One race car driving rivals. The film's exposure in Toronto will not only help position it for Academy attention, a natural given Howard and producer Brian Grazer's longtime high awards pedigree, but will also help promote it when it open immediately afterwards in exclusive runs Sept. 20 and then goes wide Sept. 27.
  • “Dallas Buyers Club”(Focus Features) is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”)and stars Matthew McConaughey as a Texas electrician diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986 and fighting the medical establishment as he seeks alternative treatments. Also starring are Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto and Steve Zahn. The R rated drama opens exclusive runs in New York and Los Angeles Nov. 1.

Bottom line: There are several hundred other films playing at TIFF and it would take a book to provide just a few paragraphs about each of them. Although most will fall by the wayside as the awards season progresses, a few are bound to emerge as contenders. Every awards season seems to bring a few surprises that capture voters' interest and affection.

Moreover, there also are some films generating talk in Toronto because they're not in Toronto. Instead of screening at TIFF, they've opted to play at the 51st annual New York Film Festival, which runs for 17 days from Sept. 27 through Oct. 13. In contrast to TIFF with a huge roster of 300 titles, NYFF will be showing a very manageable 35 films this year, giving festivalgoers a much better chance of seeing what they really want to see. Because the festival's in New York, it's easily accessible to the national media whose coverage is essential to would-be awards nominees.

Three very high profile titles that chose not to play in Toronto are screening in New York and all three are safe bets to attract major awards consideration:

  • “All is Lost” (Roadside Attractions) is written and directed by J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) and stars Robert Redford, who's the only actor seen in the PG-13 drama. Redford plays a man on a solo yacht voyage in the Indian Ocean who collides with a floating shipping container that knocks out his navigation and communications capabilities. After sailing into a violent storm, he finds himself confronting his own mortality. "Lost" arrives in limited release Oct. 18.

    Redford won the best directing Oscar in 1981 for “Ordinary People.” He was Oscar nominated in 1974 for best actor for “The Sting” and in 1995 for directing and being a producer of "Quiz Show." Redford, who's 76, is widely expected to be a best actor contender for what's being called a tour-de-force performance.
  • “Inside Llewyn Davis”(CBS Films/Scott Rudin Productions) is written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, who have won four Oscars – in 1997 for co-writing, directing (Joel Coen had sole directing credit) and editing “Fargo” and in 2008 for directing, writing and being producers of “No Country For Old Men.” The Coens have also received nine additional Oscar nominations since 1997 and are now likely Oscar nominees for any new film they make.

    The R rated drama, which opens in limited release Dec. 6, stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham and Stark Sands. Isaac plays the title character, a young folk singer navigating the 1961 folk music scene in New York's Greenwich Village.
  • “Nebraska”(Paramount) is directed by Alexander Payne, who in 2005 won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for co-writing “Sideways” and in 2012 won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for co-writing “The Descendants”. Payne's also received four additional Oscar nominations since 2000 and is regarded by Hollywood handicappers as a likely Oscar nominee for any new film he makes. The film's 76 year old star Bruce Dern is already being talked about as a likely best actor nominee. Dern's only been Oscar nominated once – in 1979 for best supporting actor for his performance in “Coming Home.”

    "Nebraska," which got an Oscar buzz going after playing very well at Telluride, opens in limited release Nov. 22. The R rated father-son drama stars Bruce Dern, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Will Forte and Devin Ratray. Dern plays an aging alcoholic who enlists his estranged son to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to redeem a winning sweepstakes ticket for $1 million. The son goes reluctantly, thinking his father's "winning" ticket is just a personalized form letter mailed to millions of people by the marketing company.