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The Oscar Road Traveled By Toronto Films

Mike Fleming

The business story of the Toronto International Film Festival was a cautious resurgence of the specialty film market. But in my opinion the more compelling and even uplifting story surrounds those Toronto films now emerging as Best Picture Oscar candidates. The reason is that so many of them easily could have fallen apart in the struggle to get them to the big screen if not for the filmmakers’ admirable persistance:

127 Hours: After Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle could have taken a multi-million paycheck to direct James Bond or any of several other big budget studio films. Instead he chose to do on an indie level what Chris Nolan did on a studio level when he used his clout to direct his wholly original spec script Inception. Boyle took an upfront salary of just $666K and put all his Slumdog credibility chips on the table to make 127 Hours. The movie’s pitch — hiker amputates pinned arm with dull knife — is so preposterously non-commercial that even Boyle’s writing partner Simon Beaufoy didn’t get it until Boyle sketched out a first draft that showed the potential for a visceral and spiritually uplifting drama. “Sometimes, and this was the first time for me, you can’t explain it verbally, you have to write it down and test it on your collaborators,” Boyle said. Said producer Christian Colson: “While Slumdog was the classic underdog story — not enough money, nearly went straight to DVD, no stars, no power — … Read More »

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TORONTO: ‘The King’s Speech’, ‘Beautiful Boy’, And ‘Incendies’ Win Top Fest Prizes

Mike Fleming

A Toronto International Film Festival that will be best remembered for the comeback of the independent acquisitions marketplace culminated today in festival awards. The Tom Hooper-directed The King’s Speech was awarded the Cadillac People’s Choice Award, which is the festival’s audience award, based on ballots collected after each screening. The picture, which stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, came in with The Weinstein Company as a distributor, and leaves the festival a bonafide Oscar season contender.  Runner-up for the audience prize was the Justin Chadwick-directed First Grader.

The Prize of the International Critics for the Discovery program went to director Shawn Ku for Beautiful Boy, a searing drama that stars Michael Sheen and Maria Bello as estranged parents of a college student who goes on a murderous campus rampage before committing suicide. The parents go through stages of guilt and denial as they attempt to process an unimaginable tragedy. Said the jury: “This film shows its audience that in a world of chaos and insanity, humanity is the only key to life.”

Anchor Bay Films paid seven-figures for distribution rights in English-speaking territories last Wednesday following the film’s premiere. A P&A commitment is also part of the deal.

The City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature went to Denis Villeneuve for Incendies, a  wrenching drama about immigration and war. The award carries a cash prize of $30,000 but more importantly for Villeneuve, … Read More »

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Big Fall Fest: Who’s Up Or Down For Oscar?

Pete Hammond

The movies have been unveiled, the reviews are in, the bloggers have blogged, so what’s the verdict? Who’s in, who’s out, who’s hoping for a recount? With a surprisingly active Toronto Film Festival winding down to a halt, and Venice and Telluride becoming distant memories, let’s see where those movies that came in with Oscar ambition and hit one, two, or all three award contender-centric fests now stand at this key early juncture.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Sony) - Ironically, the one movie that perhaps generated the biggest buzz this week wasn’t at any of the Big Three. The Social Network stole the thunder from Toronto by beginning screenings for onliners in New York and Los Angeles before it opens the New York Film Festival on September 24th. Oscar Chance: It instantly became anointed a frontrunner for Best Picture.

BLACK SWAN (Fox Searchlight) – It took Venice by storm with one of the most enthusiastic opening night ovations in years. But at award time on the Lido it was virtually overlooked (except for a breakthrough honor for Mila Kunis). Top reviews and lots of awards talk followed at Telluride and Toronto, especially for Natalie Portman. Oscar Chance: Very much alive in key races including newfound frontrunner status for Portman in Best Actress. Big question is how will older voters react to film’s kinkier aspects?

SOMEWHERE (Focus Features) – Sofia Coppola’s quiet character study won the top prize in Venice despite mixed reviews and some cries that jury president and Coppola intimate Quentin Tarantino played favorites. (Tarantino vehemently dismissed the criticism.) The film sat out Telluride and Toronto by design and will likely be held back from screenings until closer to its late December release. Oscar Chance: Still a bit of a mystery but may be too soft to make a dent. Coppola though is well-liked by her fellow writers and directors and Stephen Dorff is said to be quite good in it.

127 HOURS (Fox Searchlight) – Danny Boyle’s first effort since sweeping the Oscars with Slumdog Millionaire two years ago was generally met with favorable reviews and good buzz in Telluride followed by at least one standing ovation in Toronto. Oscar Chance: Strongest bet in Best Actor for James Franco. A longer shot in Best Picture as “Farewell to Arm” scene may be too much for some at the Academy.

CONVICTION (Fox Searchlight) - Middling reviews and lack of strong buzz in Toronto make this true story a long shot. Oscar Chance: Hillary Swank has a shot in Best Actress but she’s down the list in an exceptionally tough field. Sam Rockwell has film’s best shot in Supporting Actor. Juliette Lewis is also possible but role may be too small.

THE KING’S SPEECH (Weinstein Co) - Strong outstanding period piece puts Harvey Weinstein back in the Oscar game big-time. Triumphed over all comers in Telluride with subsequent buzz seeing hundreds turned away in Toronto. Great reviews and a real crowd pleaser. Oscar Chance: A slam dunk for major nominations across the board and an instant frontrunner that should play right into Academy’s lap.

MADE IN DAGENHAM (Sony Pictures Classics) – Another British period piece that debuted in Toronto to good results and sweet reviews. Story about a group of female factory workers fighting for equal pay is very accessible entertainment. Oscar Chance: This may be Sony Classics’ best shot to get into Best Picture, very Academy friendly film with acting noms possible for star Sally Hawkins and supporters Miranda Richardson and Bob Hoskins.

ANOTHER YEAR (Sony Pictures Classics) – Mike Leigh’s best film since Secrets And Lies didn’t win anything in Cannes in May and seemed to get mixed to excellent reactions in North American premieres in Telluride and Toronto. Those who like it love it. Oscar Chance: Leigh films usually go over well with the Academy but surest thing is the acclaimed performance of Lesley Manville. She should go for supporting where she’d have a better chance than in the overcrowded lead actress category.

THE TOWN (Warner Bros) – Ben Affleck drew pretty good reviews as an actor and especially director out of Venice and Toronto. Depending on how it does at the box office starting this weekend, it could follow a similar trajectory as its producer Graham King’s Oscar winning The Departed. Or not. Oscar Chance: Pedigree is fine but may be too much in the violent action genre. Strong performances could crack one of the acting categories, with Jeremy Renner the most likely possibility in support.

HEREAFTER (Warner Bros) – Clint Eastwood ‘s latest got mixed reviews out of Toronto. Read More »

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TORONTO: Lionsgate Buying ‘Rabbit Hole’

Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Lionsgate is wrapping up a deal to acquire North American distribution rights to Rabbit Hole, and the plan is to jump right into this year’s Oscar race by releasing  the picture  before year’s end. They will take advantage of a career performance by Nicole Kidman as a mother who loses her child. The John Cameron Mitchell-directed film stars Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a married couple trying to keep the relationship alive after a devastating loss. David Lindsay-Abaire adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Dianne Wiest’s performance has also been singled out.

It is the second big deal in two days for Lionsgate, which partnered with Roadside Attractions for the U.S. rights on the Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator. While the decision was made for that pic to sit out this crowding Oscar field, Lionsgate needed a horse to ride in the race and Rabbit Hole is it. The buzz on the film has been strong here, both among critics and audiences, despite its dark subject matter. Kidman is credited with her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in The Hours. On Rabbit Hole, she found and bought the stage play and receives her first producing credit since she was the catalyst for getting the movie made. The deal was negotiated between CAA and Lionsgate’s Jason Constantine, Eda Kowan and Wendy Jaffe.

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Can ‘Social Network’ Go All The Oscar Way?

Pete Hammond

As Toronto continues to unveil films, Oscar winning producer Scott Rudin (No Country For Old Men) was busy sending out email invites in NYC and LA to see The Social Network (October 1st), one of the few Fall openers not showing its wares in Canada this week. Instead, it will open the New York Film Festival instead on September 24. It’s a smart strategy but even without a personal invitation from one of the film’s producers this is already the current must-see movie on every Oscar watchers list.  As an example of that, one blogger actually got on a plane from Toronto to New York just to see Social Network, then headed immediately back to Toronto. His subsequent review was a rave declaring it the one to beat for Best Picture (a little premature on that I think). That’s just one example of the praise now starting to hit the Internet from Hitfix to Slashfilm to Chud and all cyber points inbetween.

Rudin’s email to me last Tuesday read in part, “I’m incredibly proud of it and promise you I would not waste your time”. Actually having seen the TV ads that already have Rolling Stone declaring it “The Movie Of The Year…,” I was pretty sure I wouldn’t.  The day after Rudin’s e-mail, 42 West, the PR firm repping the film, sent  a list of possibilities including 7 screenings in New York, and 8 in Los Angeles (all in small rooms … Read More »

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Phoenix Sets Laffer With Monty Python’s Terry Jones And Daily Show’s John Oliver

By | Tuesday September 14, 2010 @ 1:14pm PDT
Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Phoenix Pictures’ Mike Medavoy, David Thwaites, and Brad Fischer are in Toronto to fan the Oscar buzz for the ultra-serious film Black Swan. But they’ve set as the next Phoenix project a comedy that will be directed by former Monty Python troupe member Terry Jones. They’ll produce Absolutely Anything, from an original script Jones wrote with Gavin Scott. While circumspect about logline, they tell me it involves “aliens, a goofy Brit, a talking dog and buckets of silliness.” Read More »

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Toronto Oscar Talk Follows Kidman And Redford Preems: Will They Open In Time?

Pete Hammond

It’s an unusual year with lots of first class lead performances from women, including Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Diane Lane, Tilda Swinton, Lesley Manville, Michelle Williams, Noomi Rapace, Sally Hawkins, Jennifer Lawrence, and Anne Hathaway. I think there is none better than Nicole Kidman making a major artistic comeback after a string of disappointments that include Australia, Nine, Margot At The Wedding, The Invasion, Fur, and Human Stain. She turns in a brilliant performance in Rabbit Hole, which had its gala world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday night. (I saw it at a private screening in L.A. a few weeks ago.) As a mother dealing with the sudden death of her 4-year-old son, Kidman gets it all heartbreakingly right. She is matched by costars Aaron Eckhart as her husband and Dianne Wiest as her mother. This is easily her best work since winning an Oscar for 2002’s The Hours, and probably her most assured screen work, even though I confess to being a major To Die For groupie.

One thing the actress has always done is take creative leaps with scripts that aren’t obviously commercial (Dogville, anyone?).  Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, the role Kidman plays won a Best Actress Tony for Cynthia Nixon. The film version, written by Lindsay-Abaire and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, is up for grabs at Toronto. Reps for the film tell me they not only … Read More »

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Climate For Deals At Toronto Feels Gloomy

Mike Fleming

TORONTO: As Toronto got into full swing Friday, audiences seemed more enthusiastic about the new films than buyers. At a time when Big Media earnings are up and the box office outlook is bright, the gloomy sales climate here indicates that the shakeout in the indie film sector isn’t over. It is hard to imagine there would be so many star-driven films vamping hard to find distribution. There is the Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator with James McAvoy (which premieres today in a gala screening), the Will Ferrell-starrer Everything Must Go (which I saw last night), the Nicole Kidman lead The Rabbit Hole, the Keanu Reeves-led Henry’s Crime, the Rachel Weisz heroine The Whistleblower and dozens of other pics with strong casts and helmers.  I haven’t seen a bad film yet. No doubt the worthy films will find distribution. Problem is, buyers are in no hurry and willing to wait out sellers in order to pay rock-bottom prices for these indies. Films that once attracted $1.5 million in minimum guarantees now bring $250,000, partly because of the old law of supply and demand: there are simply more good indies than capable distributors because the  specialty DVD film market has cratered so badly.

Distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and The Weinstein Co already have their Oscar lineups, so they’ve no need to make a quick deal like last year, when Harvey … Read More »

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As Toronto Unveils Inventive Oscar Films, Why Can’t Hollywood Prize Originality Too?

Mike Fleming

More than Sundance, Cannes, or even Telluride, the Toronto International Film Festival is where quality films come to strut, and where the groundswell of Oscar buzz really starts. For film purists, it is also the official end of summer and, hopefully, a parade of original films largely missing among this summer’s Hollywood films. While 75% of major studio releases this summer were remakes, sequels, or adaptations generated by arm-long lists of writers, Toronto will inject some excitement with a slate heavy on inventiveness. That’s why it likely will announce both Best Picture candidates and a slew of Best Actor and Best Actress contenders.

The films with the most heat are divided between those that are original and those based on existing material. They include Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours with James Franco, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech with Colin Firth, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan with Natalie Portman, Larysa Kondrack’s sex trafficking drama The Whistleblower with Rachel Weisz, John Cameron Mitchell’s The Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman, and Robert Redford’s Lincoln assassination tale The Conspirator, starring James McAvoy and Robin Wright and which has arguably the highest wanna-see of the films available for acquisition. There is also Ben Affleck’s much talked-about The Town, and the Clint Eastwood-directed Hereafter, which will be seen for the first time by most pundits. Also at Toronto are Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful, which won a Best Actor prize for Javier Bardem at Cannes, and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, whose  top-notch performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling unveiled at Sundance and then Cannes.

Done well, originality in festival films pays off. Whereas the branded films that Hollywood generated this summer were for the most part underperforming. Revenues were up slightly only because of higher 3D ticket prices, and attendance was down to the lowest level since 2007. But there was a 3-week period in July that saw Universal and Illumination release Despicable Me, Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures follow with Inception, and then Sony Pictures release Salt. It felt like somebody opened a window and let in fresh air. Audiences responded, and box office soared. It wasn’t a coincidence that all three movies saw the same writer who started the pic survive until the end. (Though I’ve heard that Salt scribe Kurt Wimmer had some uncredited help from Brian Helgeland).

I asked a group of well-established writers, executives and dealmakers to list the factors preventing originality in Hollywood films:

A)    An aversion to risk-taking which is a lingering byproduct of the recession and credit crunch. “Studio executives are always afraid of taking risks unless they can point to a big success,” said one writer’s agent. “If a Western did well, they’d want another Western, and they’d get a lot of bad Westerns.”

B)   An over-reliance on “branded” properties that became prevalent over the last several years. Rights holders got first dollar gross deals and say over creative issues and release deadlines, even though they don’t know the first thing about making a good movie.

C)  The rise of one-step screenwriter deals and sweepstakes pitching (where multiple writers compete for a job by pitching ideas for the same assignment). Several writers admitted to me that when their priority is advancing to the next draft, originality goes out the window. They try to please studio executives and producers who thrive in a comfort zone of sameness.

D)  The growing influence of marketing executives in the selection of films that get made. Those executives favor films they know how to sell, which means films they’ve sold before.

“I hope this summer’s movies like Despicable Me and Inception reinvigorate the industry’s belief in original ideas,” said Illumination founder Chris Meledandri, whose Despicable Me has surpassed Shrek Forever After, Kung-Fu Panda, Happy Feet, Ratatouille, Madagascar, and two Ice Age films on the domestic gross chart. “The whole industry needs to swing back from the reliance on pre-awareness. Audiences also thrive on the discovery of new characters, stories and worlds. From a business perspective, today’s fresh ideas have the potential to become tomorrow’s franchises.”

Skeptics argue that both Despicable Me and Inception were anomalies. The former got its $69 million budget because Meledandri wanted it to be Illumination’s first film, after Universal hired him away from a successful run at Fox Animation. Inception was more unlikely. Warner Bros execs, waiting for director Chris Nolan to do another Batman, were surprised when he instead dropped the Inception spec script in their laps. The studio let Nolan loose on an idea that rattled around his head for a decade before he put it on paper. Would anyone have approved $160 million for such an impossible-to-explain-in-a-sentence film if the director hadn’t been Nolan?

Still, motion picture lit agents are encouraged. They tell me the word “originality” is coming up often in meetings with studio execs. “Now, we’re on the originality train. It is at least encouraging to have conversations where they aren’t closing doors on anything but branded projects. They’re saying we need new IP.” So agents are pushing their clients to write — gasp! — spec scripts, rather than strictly compete for assignments. “The best thing about Inception was that Nolan didn’t follow The Dark Knight by taking a fat payday, he wrote a spec,” said one writer’s rep. “Writers haven’t been doing specs because there was no room in the marketplace for them. Our clients would say, ‘how are you going to sell my script if you tell me all they want to make is something with a Hasbro tie-in?’” Read More »

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