Pete Hammond

The film industry poured into town for the Toronto Film Festival’s Gala Opening Thursday night kickoff of Davis Guggenheim’s U2 movie, From the Sky Down. But the festival really got off and running earlier in the day, as least as far as Sony Pictures was concerned. The studio that could have had its first Best Picture Oscar win in more than two decades last year with The Social Network is serving notice that it is back in the race again this year with two potential Best Pic contenders. Both Brad Pitt’s Moneyball and George Clooney’s The Ides of March screened back-to-back in a theater packed with press and industry types this afternoon. This was in advance of the studio’s double gala premieres Friday night at the Roy Thomson Hall. That inevitably will provide a double dose of star power that film festival organizers can only dream of.

In the case of Moneyball, Sony is throwing its world premiere here. Bringing it to the screen was a tumultuous 8-year ride, but it was all worth it. You can definitely add Pitt to the growing list of Best Actor contenders and throw in Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill as supporting possibilities. The film, based on Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, is a baseball movie that even people who hate baseball might appreciate. It all started in 2003 when former New Line exec Rachael Horovitz tried to sell it to a studio but got no takers. Finally teaming with writer Stan Chervin (who gets a story credit), they threw a winning pitch, drawing fervent interest in 2004 from both Warners and Sony. They went with the latter and Amy Pascal, who I am told showed great passion for the project from day one.

Initially, baseball freak Steven Soderbergh was involved, but he had to pass because of other commitments, including another baseball-themed movie he had for George Clooney. Eventually Sony brought in producer Michael De Luca to join Horovitz and, five years later in 2009, Soderbergh was back to direct. But  in a well-detailed case of creative differences the Oscar-winning director was jettisoned from the film just 72 hours before production was to begin when the studio changed its mind about his changes to Steven Zaillian’s adaptation. His primary addition included Reds-like testimonials from real-life players. Pitt, knowing a good thing when he saw it, stayed on board throughout. The project really got back on track with executive producer Scott Rudin coming aboard along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who did a polish on Zaillian’s script (both get credit now), and the hiring of Bennett Miller (Capote) to replace Soderbergh.

It’s easy to see why Pitt would want to stick with this role even after his friend and Ocean’s 11 director Soderbergh left (he moved on to direct Contagion, which hits theaters today). This is a classic movie star role in the tradition of something that Robert Redford or Paul Newman would have done in their prime. He has never been better, and the movie is the best sports film since Bull Durham, a real triumph considering the long and winding road it took to get to the screen.

As for the second feature on the Sony bill, The Ides of March obviously played well in Venice and it seemed to go over here too. It was a tough audience of critics including Roger Ebert, with wife Chaz, who told me he was rushing in because he was worried about getting a good seat. Once a movie fan, always a movie fan. I was told it was Ebert and his late partner Gene Siskel who really put this festival on the map in the late 1970s when they were brought in to do high-profile interviews with top names like Warren Beatty. It was nice to see Ebert here since he had to skip Telluride.

In addition to Clooney, who directs and co-writes, Ides features a great supporting cast including Hoffman (again), Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood, all backing Ryan Gosling, who has a one-two punch of his own at Toronto with this film and Cannes sensation Drive. Based on the play Farragut North, this film version has been radically changed. The Governor Morris character Clooney plays is a new invention, and that’s a good thing because the movie creates a killer confrontation scene between him and Gosling that really pops. This is a work clearly in the best tradition of the challenging films the major studios turned out in the 1970s. It also is a bit reminiscent, in a good way, of classic political films like 1964′s The Best Man, starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. That film, like The Ides of March, deals with the underhanded manipulations in a Presidential primary campaign.

Sony has yet another Oscar hopeful world-premiering here with its first press screenings tomorrow, the period costume drama Anonymous. It’s an atypical exercise from disaster movie director Roland Emmerich questions whether Shakespeare really wrote his own plays. So the studio that has spent much of 2011 releasing junk food movies like 30 Minutes or Less and today’s newbie, Bucky Larson Wants to Be a Star, looks like it wants to be a serious Oscar player again this year. And still to come in the holiday season is the David Fincher adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, who could be a Best Actress contender if things pan out. With that film, Moneyball and Warner Bros’ Christmas release, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it looks like Scott Rudin, who had 2 of the 10 2010 Best Pic nominees in The Social Network and True Grit, could be back for more.

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