Film festivals becoming winner-take-all affairs

TORONTO — Film festivals are tough on the body as well as the budget. Folks leaving fests always look like college students after a hard weekend of partying. Mind you, they haven’t been partying. They’ve been dealing and pitching and hondling — and, well, partying.

Festival regulars, however, are increasingly wrestling with this reality: As fests have steadily grown more expensive, and more complicated to navigate, they’ve also become winner-take-all affairs. One or two films collect deals and accolades. The rest get ignored. Expensively so, because it costs a lot of money and energy to launch a festival campaign.

“The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke, was the movie of the hour at Toronto, even though its path was a bumpy one. For one thing, it was all but impossible (as usual) to find Rourke himself to promote the film. An emissary from Lionsgate, a big bidder, also observed it was all but impossible to figure out who actually was taking bids (at least three reps presented themselves in that role).

Most of the several hundred filmmakers who brought their films to Toronto wanted attention even more than deals — but attention from whom? The media settles for a 10-second red-carpet wave from Brad Pitt, who always looks like a man fearing a terrorist attack.

By contrast, “serious” critics like A.O. Scott of the New York Times only want to write about movies by Hirokazu Kore-Eda or Abbas Kiarostami that they know no one else will ever get a chance to see.

The folks I empathize with are Julianne Moore and Fernando Meirelles, whose intriguing movie, “Blindness,” took some raps in Cannes but who are still supporting their vision across the festival circuit in the hopes of finding a new wave of support. Or Edward Norton and Gavin O’Connor, whose “Pride and Glory” was kept under shrouds for a couple of years by New Line and Warner Bros. until marketing execs could find “the right release date” (that’s become a common euphemism for executive indecision).

Support is hard to come by for a number of reasons. The press keeps running stories about the fade-out of the specialty film business, but new players like Summit and Overture were in full action at Toronto. Reporters keep writing that money is running out, but some new funds announced themselves at this fest, and the folks from Abu Dhabi kept reminding anyone who would listen that they had more money than they know what to do with (needless to say, there were a lot of people with suggestions at Toronto).

Toronto itself is such an affluent and sophisticated city that pessimism just doesn’t play here. Formidable new edifices are being constructed that will provide a much-needed hub for the festival and levitate it even higher in the power pyramid of movie fests.

And that indeed defines the alchemy of the festival circuit: Its regulars are energized and empowered by its rituals, even as some are utterly defeated by them. The triumph of an obscure film like “The Wrestler” delights festgoers and gives them hope.

And they remain confident that someone, some day, will even find Mickey Rourke.

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