In the past the Toronto International Film Festival helped to set up Hollywood’s awards season.
This year’s film festival has devoted some prime spots to movies that are not so much jockeying for position in the forthcoming Oscar race as fighting to be seen at all. Even with strong credentials, several featured pictures have been sideswiped by corporate consolidation, a weak market for independent films and producers’ wariness of an audience that has often shunned the difficult.
“Pride and Glory,” a New York City police drama that will be shown at an evening gala on Sept. 9, for instance, was shot more than two years ago by the director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”), with Colin Farrell and Edward Norton in lead roles. Warner Brothers, flush with films like this one after ingesting its corporate sibling New Line Cinema, is hoping Toronto will generate excitement for a much-delayed Oct. 24 release.
Another gala (on Sept. 10) celebrates “The Lucky Ones,”about returning Iraq veterans on a bittersweet road trip back home. Directed by Neil Burger, it stars Tim Robbins,Rachel McAdams and Michael Peña, who are expected to appear at the festival in support of a film finally set for release, on Sept. 26 by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. Confronted by Iraq-theme box-office disappointments like“Stop-Loss,” “Redacted” and “In the Valley of Elah,” the filmmakers and distributors have struggled for months to come up with the best way to market a movie in which the word “Iraq” is not mentioned though the war infuses every scene.
North American premieres are also set for two challenging films, Steven Soderbergh’s two-part “Che” (each part about two hours long) about Che Guevara; and “Synecdoche, New York,” a movie, directed by Charlie Kaufman, about a play within a city within a warehouse. Both screened at Cannes in May, without finding a distributor there. “Synedoche” is now set for release by Sony Pictures Classics; the producers of “Che” are finalizing a deal for United States distribution, their spokeswoman said.
“I think we’ve seen a redoubling of effort on the part of filmmakers,” Cameron Bailey, a co-director of the festival, said in a telephone interview. He spoke of a sense that filmmakers are telling deeper and more personal stories, rather than chasing commercial prospects, which may be diminishing in any case.
Mr. Bailey said he believed the festival’s selections were among its strongest ever. He particularly noted two films, “The Wrestler,” by Darren Aronofsky, which has been looking for a United States distributor, and “Rachel Getting Married,” by Jonathan Demme, set for release by Sony Pictures Classics, as works by directors in peak form. To avoid sprawl the 10-day festival has become smaller, despite a growing number of submissions, which reached 4,200 this year. The number of features was intentionally trimmed, to 249 from 261. But because last year’s festival included some unusually long works, officials expect to screen 20,693 minutes of film, down 30 percent from 29,764 minutes last year. In relatively short supply are the kind of big studio releases — “Michael Clayton,” “Walk the Line,” “Ray,” “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” — that in the past used Toronto to start Oscar campaigns.
Two films that may fit the mold this year are “Flash of Genius,” a Universal Pictures release, directed by Marc Abraham and starring Greg Kinnear as the engineer who invents the intermittent windshield wiper; and Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” a Touchstone Pictures film about a group of black soldiers in Italy during World War II.
Other principal attractions are Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Burn After Reading,” a comic caper from Focus Features, with George Clooney and Brad Pitt among its stars, and “The Secret Life of Bees,” from Fox Searchlight, adapted and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a Sue Monk Kidd novel.
As in the past, other films will come looking for distribution. Among those are “Me and Orson Welles,” directed by Richard Linklater with Zac Efron, Claire Danes and Christian McKay; “Lovely, Still,” directed by Nik Fackler with Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau; and “Management,” directed by Stephen Belber, with Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn andWoody Harrelson.
Available films are sure to outnumber ready buyers in a market that has seen New Line, Warner Independent Pictures and Paramount Vantage fold or retrench. Which means that Toronto this year is likely to be more work than play.
“Filmmakers have to take a lot more ownership of their projects,” said Cynthia Swartz, a partner in the publicity firm 42West, which represents more than a dozen films showing at Toronto. She spoke of a growing need for even the most established filmmakers to baby their works through a festival apparatus that can keep a film alive when commercial distribution is slow to materialize.
“They just don’t have as many options as they used to.”