Media inflates partisan themes in fest pix

Sex is what sold at Cannes in May, but the hottest commodity at this year’s edition of the Toronto Film Festival is political shock value.

Even before the fest officially opened Thursday, it had become clear that pics touching a partisan nerve — especially those of right-wing radio talkers — were leading the buzz derby.

Fest opened Thursday night with Canadian-Danish coprod, the Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn-helmed “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” –and a weird mixture of corporate fundraiser and ethnic pride.

Event, at city’s sleek Roy Thomson Hall, kicked off with a four-minute live solo of Inuit chanting, then gave way to kudos for sponsors like Bell Canada.

As for the hot-button pics coming up, “Death of a President,” a film featuring the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush, started things off when outlets worldwide picked up a photo mocked up as a scene of the murder. That production still landed first on the Drudge Report and was talked up by Rush Limbaugh. Likewise, though he’s only showing a teasers of his next docs “Sicko” and “The Great ’04 Slack Uprising,” Michael Moore received frequent mentions, as did the Weinstein Co.’s “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” doc on the outspoken music act.

Less well known pics with controversial pegs — such as docu “The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair” — have been swept up in the tide, and now pics with few political pretensions are being seen as potential flashpoints, as with 20th Century Fox’s upcoming laffer “Borat,” which found itself parsed for anti-Semitism in a New York Times article. (A midnight screening of the pic was nevertheless one of the hottest tickets on the opening night of the fest.)

Notably, the first deal to be inked since the fest started was IFC Films’ pickup of doc “… So Goes the Nation,” which provides a war-room view of 2004’s closely fought presidential race.

Such films may only represent a tiny fraction of the 352 films unspooling at Toronto this year, but major fests are often assigned a thematic throughline before a single pic screens. At Cannes, sexually explicit pics such as “Shortbus” (which is playing Toronto), which includes many scenes of unsimulated sex, were held up as representative of the fest, along with titles like “Red Road” and the artistic porn experiment “Destricted.”

Fest co-director Noah Cowan said he wasn’t looking to put an emphasis on bomb-throwing titles in this year’s program — as evidence of that one could point to the fest’s opening night selection, “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” a 1920s-set pic about Canada’s Inuit population that fits with fest’s recent tendency to bow with artier fare.

Pic preemed Thursday night at a screening at the city’s Roy Thomson Hall.

“It’s always good to go into an event of this size with something to talk about,” he said. What bothers him as a fest planner is when the outside world overlooks the nuances of the pics. “The thing about the coverage of ‘Death of a President’ that drove me crazy is that people like to reduce extremely complex things to a single image. Film as an art form allows you to deal with subtlety,” Cowan said.

But Peter Carlton, senior commissioning editor for Film4, the movie arm of Channel 4, which will air the doc in Blighty, acknowledged that a buzzy hook helps sell pics.

“One of the reasons that political controversy has gotten back is people are thinking, ‘What’s that one thing that can make my film stand out?’ Movie people and PR people have to constantly find new angles to sell our movies,” he said.

There is a downside, though. “If it gets blown out of proportion, the film can be seen as a cynical media exercise rather than a film that wants to be seen for what it has to say,” Carlton said.

IFC Films topper Jonathan Sehring said the political flavor of “So Goes,” as well as an opportunity to release the pic before November’s elections, made the distrib interested in the pic. This year’s emphasis on political controversy has also given heat to the doc market. There’s a stronger-than-usual presence at the fest of mini-majors packing documentaries under their belts. In addition to “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing,” pics arriving in Toronto with a deal already in hand are “Deliver Us From Evil,” being distribbed Stateside by Lionsgate, and “American Hardcore” by Sony Pictures Classics.

Docs drawing early sales buzz include “Lake of Fire,” Tony Kaye’s unflinching exploration of the abortion debate.

But now that the controversial mood has taken root, flacks are pitching features that at first glance seem less than controversial — like, say, a drama of a family dealing with illness — as edgy political treatises. It’s almost as if auds are being offered medicine to sneak the sugar down.

John Jeffcoat, helmer of “Outsourced,” a fish-out-of-water laffer about a inventory manager who travels to India to train his replacements, said his pic was inspired by the software engineers in his hometown of Seattle seeing their jobs shipped to India. “It’s definitely a comedy,” he said.

But he’s finding himself addressing the issues of globalization in his press interviews more often than he does the laughs in the pic. Still, he said, “If you don’t even know what outsourcing is, you’re going to enjoy this film.”

Contributing to the yen for pics on weighty issues was the success of films such as “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” during last year’s kudos season.

“There’s no doubt that the reaction to last year’s films probably gave courage to many film distributor executives over the last nine months as they picked up movies,” said Phillip Noyce, whose “Catch a Fire,” which is set against the backdrop of the struggle against South African apartheid, will preem here before its Focus Features release on Oct. 27.

Yet filmmakers are wary of hitting the political pedal too hard.

Andrea Calderwood, a producer of Fox Searchlight’s “The Last King of Scotland,” said that the project moved away from being a pic about Idi Amin and more focused on the relationship with the young Scottish doctor he picks in the film to be his personal physician.

“An earlier script covered all of Idi Amin’s regime, but it became more successful the more we focused on the relationship of the two men,” she said.

Lisa Bryer, also a producer of the pic, added that it could backfire to pitch it as a political history lesson. “We would have looked really stupid because everyone would know we were playing it up.”

And fest co-director Cowan says that whatever the pre-fest buzz, it’s the aud reaction that will make pics memorable.

“The films that win out in press coverage are often the very best films we’re showing. Pre-festival themes are speculative.”

(Tamsen Tillson contributed to this report.)

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