Toronto fest’s festive as attendance rises

Opener 'Ararat' draws Turkish anger

TORONTO — Many figured tough economic conditions in the film biz might put a damper on this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival. But the Canuck fest kicked off in upbeat fashion Thursday with organizers only too happy to note that industry attendance is actually up.

There are 1,223 folks registered at the fest’s Industry Center, up from 1,077 last year, and there is also an increase at the sales office, with 403 companies and 670 buyers and sellers on hand at the event. There are 750 journalists at the fest in Canada’s largest city, the same number as last year.

There was also a fear that post-9/11, fewer stars would be flying around the globe to film festivals.

But the guest list is as star-studded as ever, with a Hollywood-heavy lineup of actors that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Julianne Moore, Kate Hudson, Heath Ledger, Kevin Kline, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker and Catherine Deneuve.Fest opened with the North American preem of hometown auteur Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat,” and, as with its Cannes bow, pic about the genocide of Armenians in Turkey in 1915 has generated considerable controversy here.

The Turkish Embassy in Canada has not lodged any official complaints about the movie, but many Turkish groups have criticized Egoyan for what they perceive as a one-sided take on the much-disputed incident.

Key stop

Toronto remains a key business stop for the global film milieu, said Kelley Alexander, director of industry at the festival.

“The great thing is that we have more buyers coming and they’re coming from different places,” Alexander said. “That’s contrary to the common opinion (that there are fewer acquisitions at film festivals). There is still a desire to buy. It has everything to do with the fact that the public is here, so the buyers can gauge the audience reaction and what the critics think.”

But U.S. acquisitions execs have low expectations for this year’s Toronto Film Festival. The available films that have generated the most pre-fest heat — some of which have been seen already by execs — include Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists” (repped by ICM), Jeff Porter’s “Try Seventeen,” Paul Quinn’s “Never Get Outta the Boat” (repped by William Morris Independent), Michael Almereyda’s “Happy Here and Now” (repped by John Sloss) and Canal Plus’ “Jet Lag” by Daniele Thompson.

There is also acquisitions interest circling Peter Mullan’s “Magdalene Sisters,” a Venice screener. Other buzz titles include the docus “MC5 — A True Testimonial” and “Stevie,” being repped by John Sloss.

One of the hottest tickets is sure to be 9/11-themed pic “The Guys,” which screens Sept. 11. No distribs have yet seen the pic.

“This is a different kind of film,” said Michael Roban, head of biz affairs for Content Film, who along with ICM’s Bart Walker is repping the film. “This film really stands on its own regardless of its subject matter. It’s a film about loss and remembrance.”

Roban added that part of the pic’s box office returns will be donated to a charity yet to be determined.

Over the event’s 10 days, 345 pics will unspool at Toronto, including 265 features, with 70% of the features making their world and/or North American premiere at the event.

Toronto is often cited as a Hollywood-centric festival, which is why organizers underline that 143 features — or 54% of the selection — are foreign-language pics.

It is also the key annual showcase for Canadian film, and some of the country’s top helmers are once again in the Toronto lineup, including David Cronenberg with the British-Canadian co-production “Spider” and Deepa Mehta with “Bollywood/Hollywood,” a romantic comedy/musical set in Toronto that opens the Perspective Canada sidebar today.

(Cathy Dunkley in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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