Spirits high due to strong audience reactions

TORONTO — Cannes and Sundance are cinephile fests, and Telluride courts the arty. But the Toronto Film Festival offers something few other major festivals can boast: real audiences by which to gauge a film.

That makes Toronto the friendliest of the friendly festivals, both for buyers and for distributors launching their fall titles.

Heading into this year’s fest, the mood was grim. The specialty box office has been abysmal since awards season, while the acquisitions market has been flat.

By Sunday afternoon, however, spirits were actually high — all because of strong audience reaction to a handful of titles. Some, like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” have distribution. Others, like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy “Management,” don’t, but that didn’t stop auds from salivating.

“I think everybody thought Toronto would be off and depressing because of the general state of indie films,” Picturehouse’s Bob Berney said. “But I think it is looking really good. I don’t know if there will be a lot of sales, but the quality of the films looks good, even though some are very small.”

Deal-wise, the pace has been glacial, with all eyes on Sunday night’s screening for buyers of “The Wrestler,” the Mickey Rourke comebacker that just took the Golden Lion in Venice. “Management,” the Sidney Kimmel romantic comedy with Aniston and Steve Zahn, was also set to screen Sunday night.

CAA’s Micah Green, who is spearheading sales on “The Wrestler,” did not screen the title for anyone after its hit run in Venice. Negotiations with buyers are likely to center on how would-be distribs would roll it out in Oscar season.

The concept of using Toronto as a springboard into the fall still has a lot of validity, judging by Focus’ glitzy bow for “Burn After Reading,” whose gala screening took over the town Friday. As it did with last year’s “Eastern Promises,” Focus is using the first weekend of Toronto, especially with this year’s Brad Pitt frenzy, as the ultimate publicity fuel for a bow the following Friday.

Of course, positive audience reaction doesn’t always translate into B.O. gold. Fest veterans like to joke that Canadian auds are too polite to boo. “You could show them your high school movie and they’d still love it,” one studio exec said.

Even grading on a curve, though, the resonance of the weekend’s preems proved a tonic for the biz at large. On Saturday night, the Ryerson theater was packed for a screening of Sony’s Michael Cera-Kat Dennings comedy “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” directed by Peter Sollett and opening Oct. 3.

Big Sony doesn’t generally use Toronto as a launching pad, but in this case, it decided to do so precisely because of the audience factor. Plus, Cera is Canadian.

“This is definitely a moviegoer festival,” one Sony exec affirmed.

After the screening, the audience departed from convention and stayed put for a Q&A with the director and cast.

Lionsgate’s Bill Maher upcoming docu “Religulous” got a standing ovation later Saturday. Outside, a small group of protestors picketed the movie, directed by Larry Charles, who himself decided to speak with those carrying picket signs decrying the movie as an attack on religious beliefs. That kind of publicity generally only helps a studio raise a film’s awareness level.

Among acquisition titles, several docs all had noteworthy debuts and generated deal talk. That short list included LeBron James basketball doc “More Than a Game”; “Chorus Line” backstager “Every Little Step,” late-’60s music pic “Soul Power” and Davis Guggenheim’s star-studded guitar story “It Could Get Loud.”

Celluloid Dreams bought all international rights to “Soul Power,” about the landmark concert that preceded the Ali-Foreman fight in Africa.

A handful of narrative pics like “Me and Orson Welles,” “Lovely, Still,” “Dean Spanley” and “Daily Show” brainchild “Coopers’ Camera,” won some admirers, but gun-shy buyers expressed some reservations.

One factor giving buyers pause was the sense that 2008, with all of its turmoil and economic uncertainty, could go down as the year when distribution models began their much-ballyhooed shift.

Filmmaker Wayne Wang met those forces of change head-on by announcing an intriguing experiment with “The Princess of Nebraska.” It will world-preem exclusively on YouTube Oct. 17 and will not receive a theatrical release. Wang’s companion film, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” is scheduled for a theatrical release Sept. 19 by Magnolia.

Another model-disrupting setup came from Participant Films and publisher PublicAffairs. They announced a deal whereby the publisher will turn out books based on Participant’s films. The first in line for the treatment is doc “Food Inc.,” the food industry expose which had its world preem here Sunday and will be expanded into a paperback original.

Edward Norton and Tim Blake Nelson also tackled marketplace issues during a press conference Sunday with Nu Image/Millennium boss Avi Lerner to tout their new pic, “Leaves of Grass.” A comedy spiked with genre elements, the $9 million pic seems to risk falling into the zone that has produced the most headaches lately.

“It’s trickier than it used to be,” Norton said, who also stars in “Pride and Glory.” That upcoming New Line release was affected by Time Warner’s shutdown of New Line but will still be released this fall as a Warners pic.

“It feels so in flux,” Nelson agreed. “Now these companies have to ask, ‘Is it DVD? Is it VOD?’ It’s certainly beyond me, and I really study these things.”

Another in-the-works project being talked up during the fest is Toronto-based helmer Brigitte Berman’s Hugh Hefner doc. The Oscar winner (for a 1985 Arte Shaw pic) just wrapped shooting and expects to have a cut ready by April. Canada’s Aver Media is handling sales.

“It’s not a biography that deals with babes and boobs,” Berman said. Rather, it will revolve around his little-recognized social activism in arenas such as First Amendment and abortion rights.

Amid all of Toronto 2008’s unexpected angles and the uncertainty looming outside the fest gates, it was reassuring to know that some sights were all too familiar. Gifting lounges are growing exponentially here. Many of the suites are run by regulars at Sundance, but now prefer the ease and talent concentration of Toronto.

“We want coverage in a cluttered environment,” said one organizer, who had a laundry list of directors and stars that have hauled out sacks of goods.

Unlike Sundance, the lounges are located in or near the hotels where talent sleeps, so it’s easy to avoid the potentially embarrassing paparazzi picture. Many of the A-listers here have their suite already lined with gifts, including hundreds of dollars in gift certificates to local merchants.

The products are all over the map. While Anne Hathaway picked out threads from French Connection, Zac Efron got ACE “man-sized” grooming tools (37% more grip!). In a convoluted twist, celebs at some lounges have the option to re-gift their swag to charity as they leave.

Buyers packed into Toronto’s Elgin Theatre for the North American premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which arrived at the Fest with a Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival. Aronofsky tried to cool the crowd down, saying, “There’s no way we’re going to live up to that hype. It’s a gentle, small film.” French sales company Wild Bunch believed in the film, he said, and if any North American buyer “is interested, I have a phone number for you afterward.”

That number belongs to CAA’s Micah Green, who will be taking calls through the night as buyers decide how much they are willing to commit to a 2008 late year release with a pricey Rourke Oscar campaign attached.

Paramount’s John Lesher, New Line’s Toby Emmerich, Harvey Weinstein, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Overture, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Summit, IFC and others were huddling afterwards. The likely buyer will be taking a risk on a movie that could win over critics and Academy actors but would be a challenge to bring to market, observers agreed.

Mike Jones, Anne Thompson, Jennie Punter and Sharon Swart contributed to this report.

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