Prestige pix jockey for positions up north

'Ararat,' 'Frida,' 'Spider' among highlights

Toronto — Why do so many people in the biz love the Toronto Intl. Film Festival? These are tough times for the worldwide fest circuit thanks to a global media slowdown, tougher conditions in the international market and a general sense that festivals are not necessarily the right venue for every film.

In addition, there are fewer and fewer major acquisitions taking place at fests because the specialized-film players are more cautious, have less money to spend and are producing more of their own titles.

But Toronto continues to attract a strong industry presence, from the U.S. and from around the world, the stars keep coming, and it is still able to lure some of the fall season’s highest-profile movies.

The lineup for the 27th edition includes 343 films from 50 countries, including 263 features, of which 74% will be world or North American preems. Pics set to unspool include

Joel Schumacher’s “Phone Booth,” toplining Colin Farrell, Katie Holmes, Kiefer Sutherland and Forest Whitaker; Irish helmer Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief,” starring Nick Nolte; Patrice Leconte’s “L’Homme du train”; controversial French director Catherine Breillat’s “Sex Is Comedy”; Peter Kosminsky’s “White Oleander,” with Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer and Rene Zellweger; and opening pic “Ararat,” the Armenian genocide drama from Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan.

One reason execs, producers and filmmakers like Toronto is the fest showcases both mainstream Hollywood cinema and indie arthouse pics.

“One of the benefits of Toronto is that you don’t have to be in a specialty category to succeed there,” says Jeffrey Godsick, executive vice president, publicity and promotion, 20th Century Fox. “It can just be a very strong, well-done movie.

“‘Phone Booth’ is a perfect film to take up there. It’s a very original movie, and it’s a broad movie that fits into many categories. Toronto is just a great way to get early buzz.”

Toronto director Piers Handling says the event clicks with the industry and filmmakers because it produces results. “I think they still get a big bang for their buck here. It’s a market but there are no formal stands. You can work here and be very effective.

“Also, we’re not limited by the rules of a competition, so it doesn’t have to be a world premiere. It’s a festival for the public as well and that’s why the filmmakers want to come back. In Toronto, the critics are only one part of the equation. The most important prize here is the audience prize.”

Increasingly, Toronto also plays a key role in film companies’ Academy Awards campaigns. The Canadian event has in the past helped propel pics such as “Chariots of Fire,” “American Beauty” and “Training Day” to Oscar glory,. The fest is also a key place for contenders for the foreign-language Oscar.

It remains an important acquisitions fest as well, though there have been fewer big-money deals in recent years.

“There’s more English-language material available than at other festivals, so it’s a good opportunity,” notes David Linde, co-president of Focus Features.

It is still a fine fest for inking deals, agrees Richard Hutton, vice president at Vulcan Prods. “If a film doesn’t have a distributor, it’s a great way to find one. It provides enormous momentum because people pay a lot of attention to the festival.”

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