Sidebars steal Toronto’s show

With the wrap of the 20th Toronto Intl. Film Festival Sept. 17, the latest outing is likely to be remembered more for sidebar events than for its impressive lineup of some 225 feature films.

Protest over budget cuts dogged the festival’s 10-day span and organizational glitches had longtime attendees critical of the operation.

“I have to say that the selection was great this year in both its quality and quantity,” observes Buena Vista Intl. senior VP Jere Hausfater. “We’ll probably do a lot of business. But our problem is that the rift between this as a public and industry event is widening. Toronto organizers favor the public but they can’t ignore the industry because we supply the product. They have to come up with a better way to handle tickets and access for buyers and sellers to screenings.”

While most visitors echo Hausfater’s sentiment on industry relations, many feel it was a weak year for product. Though interest was perked in a number of titles, nothing has transpired like last year’s bidding war for “Priest.”

Neither debuting films nor proven entries from the Cannes, Venice or Sundance festivals have generated a groundswell that might translate into a fall box office bonanza. Least well-received overall have been the prestige galas, including “Steal Big, Steal Little,” “The Crossing Guard” and the German “My Mother’s Courage.”

“French Exit,” a bittersweet romantic comedy set in Hollywood, has generated some buzz among buyers. But some say the film is as overvalued as “Priest” was last year because of the paucity of playable films with available rights. Nonetheless, even its detractors feel it has commercial merits and artistic qualities.

Other available films being eyed here are the screen version of Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet,” the Canadian doc “Champagne Safari,” American indie “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Claude Sautet’s “Nelly et M. Arnaud” and Venice winners “Cyclo” and “La Ceremonie” and Montreal winner “Georgia.”

“Georgia,” starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, is viewed as the most commercial. Miramax was expected to close a deal for the picture – which opened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar – before the close of the fest. It’s also anticipated that should Miramax acquire the film, it will mount a major end-of-year Oscar campaign for the film and Leigh that could translate into as much as a $20 million B.O.

The other films are expected to perform more modestly, perhaps grossing $5 million domestically. That would be good news for “Celluloid Closet,” which would generate a modest profit from theaters and pure profit on videocassette. Though HBO already owns the television rights to the entertaining history of gays in the movies, it’s viewed as having enormous appeal as a sell-through title on tape. The voracious Miramax is also said to be hot on the trail for the picture.

A handful of films, including the Japanese “Love Letter,” have attracted interest as possible remake possibilities by U.S. majors. Disney and Fox have been mentioned as expressing interest in that title.

Long considered a well-oiled, user-friendly event, this year brought a quantum leap in screening and organizational snafus. “It’s the year that broke the camel’s back,” says a sales agent. “The fest got too big, too fast, and a big part of my job has been standing at the door of the theater to ensure buyers get in to see my movie…. I like Toronto and I’ve been happy to give them pictures. But if this continues I have to be assured buyers can see the movie with audiences or it’s just not worth it to me.”

Organizers insist that those who need to see movies can get into screenings. But reports of early departures by frustrated biz shutouts are circulating.

While industry quibbles have increased in volume, the public and the 600 journalists on hand enjoyed a steady stream of celebrity guests that included Andy Garcia, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lily Tomlin, Sean Penn, Diane Keaton, Uma Thurman, Sting, Quentin Tarantino and Kenneth Branagh.

“This is a great festival and if there were problems for some getting tickets, I certainly didn’t encounter any,” notes one long-time industry attendee. “I think the organizers can be proud of the selections.”

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