World pics pass 'Go' in Toronto

TORONTO – The Toronto Intl. Film Festival is often referred to as the most Hollywood of film festivals, and it has indeed become a favorite with the U.S. film biz for premieres and acquisitions.

But, as it celebrates its 25th anniversary, perhaps the most notable change at the Canuck fest is how it’s also become an important destination for film industryites from Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

The Europeans in particular have adopted Toronto as the fest of choice to break into the all-important North American theatrical marketplace. In contrast to the situation a decade ago, virtually all of the major European players feel they must show up at Toronto. European Film Promotion’s panel “The Face European Cinema Today” has become an annual event and this year presents new talents including Iceland’s Baltasar Kormakur (“101 Reykjavik”) and Germany’s Romuald Karmakar (“Manila”) and Italian thesp-cum-helmer Asia Argento (“Scarlet Diva”).

The pics that generate the most ink at the fest, however, are the Hollywood titles, in part because the studios bring so much high-powered talent to dazzle the media.

While some grumble that the festival caters too heavily to the major Hollywood studios, there is no question the majors make good use of the fest to generate buzz on less-mainstream autumn releases.

This year’s festival (Sept. 7-16) features some of the season’s most eagerly anticipated studio films. Major Hollywood titles on the Toronto sked include Fox’s “Men of Honor,” a true-life tale of the Navy’s first African-American master diver starring Robert De Niro, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Charlize Theron. DreamWorks has two high-profile new titles in the Toronto lineup: rock ‘n’ roll memoir “Almost Famous,” writer-director Cameron Crowe’s first feature since “Jerry Maguire, and “The Contender,” a political thriller written and directed by Rod Lurie and starring Gary Oldman, Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges. In addition, Castle Rock Entertainment will be repped by “Best in Show,” a mock documentary on eccentric dog owners from helmer Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Guffman”), and starring Parker Posey, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.

But fest reps insist Hollywood fare only accounts for part of the lineup.

“This festival is not strictly about one kind of cinema,” says festival managing director Michele Maheux. “It’s about all world cinema. Hollywood is part of that, but it’s not only about Hollywood cinema.”

The Toronto sked includes many of the year’s highest-profile arthouse pics from Europe and Asia, including “The Widow of Saint-Pierre” from Gallic auteur Patrice Leconte (“Ridicule”); Italian director Silvio Soldini’s “Bread and Tulips”; Hong Kong helmer Wong Kar-wai’s Cannes Intl. Film Festival competition entry “In the Mood for Love”; and “The Princess and the Warrior,” from Germany’s Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”).

Independents’ day

Toronto is important for the studios, but it is perhaps even more crucial for indie film distribs. The fest is one of the key moments in the year for Lions Gate Releasing, both for launching and acquiring films. This year, Lions Gate — which is owned by Vancouver-based Lions Gate Entertainment — will be screening several of its pics at Toronto, including opening-night gala selection “Stardom,” from two-time Oscar nominee Denys Arcand, “The Widow of Saint-Pierre” and horror pic “Shadow of the Vampire,” starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe.

Lions Gate also tends to be fairly active on the acquisitions front at the fest. Two years ago, the indie distrib bought opening-night pic “The Red Violin,” which went on to do decent specialty business in the U.S. last year, and, at last year’s edition, it bought “The Big Kahuna,” co-starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito.

“It’s a real bountiful place to acquire films,” attests Lions Gate Releasing co-president Mark Urman. “We’ve done well there.”

For Urman, the upside of Toronto is the fact that execs can immediately see how the pic plays with an English-speaking North American audience.

“It provides a model for how a film can be marketed,” he says. “In the space of one day, you can really project the destiny of a film and that can’t be said of Sundance.”

For Victor Loewy, chairman of the Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Group, Toronto has become a great place to sell indie pics.

“If the audience reaction is good, then it sells like nowhere else,” says Loewy. “It’s also a good place to showcase Canadian film.”

DreamWorks has had a couple of notable successes at the Toronto festival. Two years ago, its animated “Antz” was the closing-night selection, which helped give the film an upbeat launch, and last year, the studio scored big time by holding the world preem of “American Beauty” at Toronto.

The studio is hoping the fest can create similar buzz this year for “Almost Famous” and “The Contender,” which both have their world preem at Toronto and then open commercially in North America shortly thereafter.

“What Toronto does is position a film as smart and commercial,” says Michael Vollman, head of field marketing and promotion at DreamWorks. “Toronto was very important in the publicity campaign for ‘American Beauty’ in that it provided a very splashy liftoff for the film.”

Frears honored

This year’s Toronto fest will also include a 25th-anniversary tribute evening in honor of seasoned British helmer Stephen Frears, who has a long history with the festival. The event will present the North American premiere of Frears’ latest pic, “Liam,” along with screenings of several of his films that have played the Toronto fest over the years, including “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “The Grifters.”

Another anniversary activity is the “25×25″ project. Festival director Piers Handling will be handing video cameras to 25 attending talents to shoot a short film. Each helmer will have 25 hours to make what Handling hopes will be “a little personal diary of what it’s like to be a filmmaker at the festival.”

“There are no real restrictions on this,” Handling says. “I wanted this to be a very loosy-goosy type of thing, where the talent — the people who come to this event — give audiences a peek from their perspective.”

The shorts will be shown throughout the festival and a compilation of all 25 will be screened at fest close.

– Tamsen Tillson in Toronto contributed to this story

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