Mitchell downplays pic's sex at press conference

TORONTO — Shortbus may be the most sexually explicit film to get mainstream distribution in years, but don’t tell that to the filmmakers.

Controversial pic on Friday began its unusual roll-out at the Toronto Film Festival, in which sex is being played down and art, character and redemption are being played up.

Helmer/scribe John Cameron Mitchell met the press for the first time in North America, focused on esoteric topics like creative process, often using words like “empowerment” to describe the film and saying what he was really aiming at is for the pic to use “sex as metaphor.”

While he did talk about the process with which he paired up the cast (through a mutual ranking system, a la speed dating) he mostly steered away from sex–and said pic does too.

“We’re not pointing up anything salacious,” he said of the marketing plan. “We’re not trying to say this is a hot movie.”

At Cannes preem in the spring, pic received a surprisingly warm reception and became an unlikely breakout.

But its prospects for success at a fest across the Atlantic are less certain.

Pic opens in October from ThinkFilm.

Toronto is a key North American test for “Shortbus”, a chance to both gauge and persuade viewers. Movie preems at the fest Sunday evening.

Even a post-screening party will go easy on the kink in favor of performance art, ThinkFilm officials said.

Movie has already touched a nerve in Canada after its star, Sook Yin Lee, nearly lost her job at the CBC when broadcaster learned of her involvement. She said, with a small smile, that her bosses did plan on coming to the Sunday screening.

Media interest at the press conference was supportive, but attendance was small-though whether that was sign of lower interest or growing mainstream acceptance wasn’t clear.

Before the press conference, pic did play its first date in North America to packed house of industryites and media.

Movie mixes hardcore images with tender relationship moments and a melancholy indie-music soundtrack

Fest strategy is part of a campaign to play down the sexual elements of the film — precisely because film is so sexual.

Main trick for distributor will be to turn the initial interest about the provocative aspects into interest in the film itself.

But it won’t always be easy–press conference did take a turn at one point toward a detailed discussion of an actor who learned to perform self-fellatio after a reporter asked about it.

ThinkFilm U.S. Chief Mark Urman has emphasized the film “sweetness” and (mostly) downplayed the sexual content.

Poster, too, has a good-clean-fun vibe more along the lines of an ensemble dating pic; it features the characters flopping about, mostly clothed.

And new trailer has a distinctly arty feel: Mitchell appears throughout and talks about the film, documentary style.

Distrib also hopes to emphasize the film’s larger goal of reflecting how a new generation relates to sex. “This is much more culturally signifcant than a bunch of actors taking off their clothes in proximity to a camera,” Urman said.

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