The greatest strength of the Toronto Film Festival is also its greatest weakness, according to Stephen Woolley, the British producer whose directorial debut “Stoned” will get its North American premiere at this year’s event.
“The audiences are really enthusiastic and really love films and really go for it,” says Woolley, who first came as a rookie producer with Neil Jordan’s “Company of Wolves” in 1984. “But this can give you a false idea of how popular your film may or may not be.”
He still harbors rueful memories of what happened to Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins.” “We had a fantastic screening, but you couldn’t equate the incredible reception to its subsequent release in North America,” he recalls.
Wearing his producer’s hat, Woolley will also be bringing Jordan’s latest movie “Breakfast on Pluto” to this year’s fest. His wife and partner in Number 9 Films, Elizabeth Karlsen, will be attending with “Mrs. Harris,” which she co-produced with Christine Vachon’s Killer Films for HBO.
It will be Karlsen’s fourth time at the fest, having taken “The Neon Bible,” “Little Voice” and “Ladies in Lavender” there. She doesn’t share her husband’s ambivalence about the warmth of the Canuck welcome.
“No matter what happens, you’re not going to get booed,” she says with relief. “I’ve had films in competition in Cannes, and in the Directors Fortnight, and it’s a wonderful experience, but it’s very, very nerve-wracking. The Cannes audience and the press is so tough and you feel so exposed. But Toronto is such a relaxed experience because the audience is so friendly.”
The world premiere of “Little Voice” at Toronto kicked off a kudos campaign by Miramax that ended up with a Golden Globe win for Michael Caine and an Oscar nomination for Brenda Blethyn.
“Harvey was so wonderful dealing with the stars. He really showed them a good time. So when it came to the Oscar campaign, they would do anything for him,” Karlsen recalls.
Woolley had a contrasting experience a few years later with another movie Miramax had high hopes for, David Leland’s “The Big Man.”
“I really loved that picture, but we didn’t get the critical reception that Harvey was expecting. It got well but not brilliantly reviewed, and the Toronto response halted Harvey in his tracks, which sent the film into a downward spiral,” Woolley says.
Again, Toronto’s greatest strength — the heavy presence of the leading American critics — became its biggest drawback. “The critics do tell people if they are going to support or not support a film,” Woolley says.
Toronto is not just about North America, with more and more foreign distribs also making the annual pilgrimage to the Great White North.
“Toronto does give you a platform to meet not only the American distributors, but also the Japanese, for example,” Woolley says.
But he believes that the ever-more-prolific output of U.S. low-budget indie filmmaking, much in evidence at Toronto, is making it harder for European films to make a dent.
“Going with a British film with unknown actors, you’re up against a $3 million digital movie with Robin Williams or Al Pacino,” he says. “And for the distributors, it’s less and less about their gut response to a film, and more about how they can sell it, and they know Pacino can do 25 chat shows.”