Events double as springboards for exposure during crucial time period

In the race to get a leg up on award competition, distributors and film festivals have gotten very cozy. As a result, heretofore considered modest but tony affairs for the chardonnay-and-brie set — such as the Mill Valley and Hamptons film festivals — are being considered strategic launch pads for the majors and specialty labels vying for year-end laurels.

A regional fest that draws a core group of East Coast Oscar voters, Hamptons gave its 2002 audience award to “Nowhere in Africa,” which went on to win the foreign-language film Oscar.

This year, the event (Oct. 22-26) pushed its run a week later to be closer to the end-of-the-year award frenzy. And arguably it was its highest-profile lineup in its 10-year history. Circuit favorites unspooled such as Miramax’s “The Human Stain”; Lions Gate’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” which also received a key slot at the recent Hollywood fest; and Samuel Goldwyn’s “Japanese Story.” “Human Stain” also was pushed back from a September release to late October to maximize fest exposure.

“Because we’re on a more intimate scale than other festivals, the films we get get a lot more play,” says Rajendra Roy, Hamptons director of programming. “So we’re able to repeat films for an audience and get really specific press attention. ‘The Human Stain’ wasn’t even on my radar screen until the date change. (Miramax) came to us immediately and we’re thrilled to provide the opportunity.”

Mill Valley, which wrapped Oct. 12, landed such Sundance hits as “The Station Agent” and “Pieces of April” as well as Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” (which recently opened the New York Film Festival and premiered at Cannes to much acclaim), Lions Gates’ “Shattered Glass,” Paramount Classics’ “The Singing Detective,” Fox Searchlight’s “In America” and the increasingly ubiquitous “Earring.”

“The festivals do take on added importance in this shortened awards season,” says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing. “Even without the screener furor, it’s more incumbent among marketeers to do everything possible to get their films seen, particularly for smaller films that are not going to go out on 3,000 screens and don’t have $35 million P&A budgets behind them.

“And we did have an eye on the shortened awards season when we decided to pursue many of these regional fall festivals so aggressively. We include the Chicago Film Festival (Oct. 2-16) in that as well. ‘Shattered Glass’ was the closing film there. Chicago happens to have a fair number of Academy and DGA and SAG members, and the shortened awards season played into that consideration.

“I think going forward into 2004 and beyond, if the screener ban does take hold, then I think people will take these film festivals even more seriously.”

As most film executives will attest, premiering their movie at a fest is a bit of a crapshoot. A negative reception among a core group of cineastes could be lethal for review-driven fare. But if the filmmaker is a critics’ fave, like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose “21 Grams” closed the New York fest (Oct. 3-19) to a uniformly warm reception, then the setting can boost work that might be deemed too dark for the tastes of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters.

“You always debate whether to premiere at the festival,” says Focus Features co-prexy James Schamus. “In our case, we open in November, so our reviews are coming out a month early. If the critical pack runs negatively, that’s something to overcome. But when it works like tonight, it really works. It’s something you can’t replicate with marketing or publicity.”

Michele Robertson, an independent film publicist working on award campaigns for Focus’ “21 Grams” and “Lost in Translation,” says festivals can aid films that “don’t have marquee names, or if you’re not the big movie everyone’s talking about and you need to be discovered and nurtured. Then you need to find different avenues to do that. What a festival like Toronto can do is get a lot of people who can see (your film) at once and kickstart it.”

In 1999, the Toronto Film Festival had its profile raised on the back of the buzz generated by its screening of “American Beauty,” seven months before it nabbed the picture Oscar. Now with a foreshortened Oscar year and a still roiling controversy involving the distribution of screeners, fest platforms have become even more crucial.

Robertson also has worked on films that aren’t star-driven like “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Billy Eliot” and “The Pianist” — indie breakouts that began as fest favorites.

A case in point is “Whale Rider,” the low-budget New Zealand sleeper with a cast of unknowns made by first-time helmer Niki Caro. Robertson represented the film last year at Toronto, where it won the audience award and subsequently was bought by Newmarket. In its first year, the pic has been navigated smartly along the festival circuit, picking up aud kudos at San Francisco, Maui and Seattle events. And with a $20 million gross, the film is still in theaters and generating buzz for its young star, 13-year-old newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes.

“The festivals played an important role in discovering the film and pointing out that the word of mouth was real,” says Bob Berney, director of programming at Newmarket. “And I think the story caught on. It was exotic but yet it told a family story with familiar themes.”

Newmarket is hoping for similar success when it world premieres “Monster” as the closing-night event at this year’s AFI Film Fest (Nov. 6-16). The film, an edgy biopic about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, features a host of promotable angles: a provocative true-crime angle, big-name talent (Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci) and a built-in American Film Institute success story — debut director Patty Jenkins is an alum.

Thanks to Newmarket, “Monster” also will open for a limited engagement just in time for Acad consideration. And if all goes according to plan, the film could follow in the footsteps of AFI 2001′s closing-night film, “Monster’s Ball,” which resulted in an Oscar for Halle Berry.

“One of the reasons Patty (Jenkins) went with Newmarket was that they thought it would be great to open this year,” says Nancy Collet, AFI fest director of programming. “Most of the studios have their slates already full. The films they’re acquiring now they can’t release until many months down the line. All the films bought in Toronto 2003 aren’t coming out until next summer.”

AFI boasts a more prominent lineup than years past, including three more world premieres: Disney’s ensemble comedy “Calendar Girls,” Sony Pictures Classics’ thriller “The Statement” and DreamWorks’ moody drama “House of Sand and Fog” — all high-profile studio releases eligible for this year’s Academy Awards.

Before Jan. 17, the closing date for casting Oscar ballots, over 100 more film festivals will compete around the globe. In their wake come big questions, such as: With so many platforms for launching films, is the market too overcrowded for eligible films?

“Definitely the more crowded the festival market gets, we all struggle for premieres and that becomes a competitive issue,” says Collet. “One film I had offered a terrific slot was ’21 Grams’ and I was very surprised they weren’t interested in screening with us. But every studio has their own strategy.”

One thing is certain — the film festival circuit is increasingly a vital component in getting indie and studio films the end-of-year acclaim and attention to which they all aspire. “Pictures that have prestige elements to them are coming out in the fourth quarter and it’s a chance to get them in front of the public and create a word-of-mouth situation,” says Paul Pflug, Miramax exec VP, media relations.

Adds Newmarket’s Berney: “Working with film festivals is a key part of the strategy for me and other independents. They become a way to distill and filter down the number of titles for acquisition. It may not be fair all the time but I don’t know what we’d do without them.”

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