Titles joust for fall festival positions

Pics by Schnabel, Coppola among contenders

The detours, dust and debris resulting from the massive construction under way at the Palazzo del Cinema — home of the Venice Film Festival — are an apt metaphor for the new challenges facing this year’s fall festival season.

There are dramatic physical changes at the Toronto Film Fest, too, as the event moves from the tony Yorkville neighborhood to its new home at the Bell Lightbox, an airy, modern space in an arty area of downtown.

But the challenges facing Venice and Toronto, along with Telluride, extend far beyond the physical and explain why this fest season could be unlike any other. The economic collapse of 2008 has finally caught up with the output of films — and with buyers.

The indie scene remains in a state of extreme flux, with Apparition, Miramax and Overture the latest to land on the endangered species list. That means even fewer U.S. buyers.

In this climate, nearly all companies are sending fewer staffers to festivals. For American films, fall fests are all about creating buzz for pics in advance of awards season, but companies are strategizing more carefully.

Paramount, for example, has decided not to take David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” to Venice, Toronto or Telluride. That’s because the film — toplining Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale — doesn’t open until Dec. 10, and Par feels it would be too hard to keep up the momentum.

Two or three years ago, a distrib wouldn’t have thought twice about taking a December film to fall fests, but as marketing budgets have shrunk, sacrifices have to be made.

If there’s a bright spot for Venice, Telluride and Toronto, it’s that there should be a glut of premium product to choose from, since a number of films weren’t ready in time for the Cannes Film Festival.

One such film that everyone expected to turn up at one of the fall fests was Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. But there are rumblings the film still isn’t ready.

“The Tree of Life” is still set to be distributed by Apparition, even though the company has been downsized in the wake of Bob Berney’s departure in May. Apparition has brought former Lionsgate exec Tom Ortenberg aboard as a consultant.

Last week, Venice announced that Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” will open the fest.

Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” Julian Schnabel’s “Miral,” Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” Ben Affleck’s “The Town” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” have been tipped for Venice, and could turn up in Toronto and Telluride as well.

Films also in play for one or more of the fall fests include Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go” and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.”

The carefully calibrated dance of deciding which films go to which fests can be a logistical nightmare for programmers, filmmakers and distributors, since many films play two fests in the same stretch.

In 2003, Coppola had to race from Telluride to Venice for “Lost in Translation”; in 2008, Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke had to rush back to Venice from Toronto when “The Wrestler” won the Golden Lion. Coppola and Aronofsky could be logging plenty of frequent-flier miles again this year.

This year, Brad Pitt will have a much easier time if delays in finishing “The Tree of Life” cause it to skip Venice and go to Toronto, since Pitt’s in the middle of shooting “Moneyball” in California.

Though it would be nice to think it’s all about the seventh art, the preferences and availability of talent can be as much of a factor as anything else in determining which films play which festivals.

Because Canadian helmer Jason Reitman likes Toronto so much, it was inevitable that he would take “Up in the Air” there. He’s also a fan of Telluride, where “Up in the Air” screened just before Toronto, following the same path as “Juno” in 2007.

For a time, Sean Penn steered clear of Toronto or Telluride, but then had such a good experience with “Into the Wild” that he’s far more amenable now to both.

“Stars are creatures of habit — until they have a bad experience,” one veteran publicist says.

Venice runs Sept. 1-11; Telluride, Sept. 3-6; and Toronto, Sept. 9-19.

With so much product recently finished, competition for the spotlight will be fierce.

Telluride is the hip, rich uncle who lives tucked away in a remote corner of the Rockies that’s difficult to get to. And because the lineup isn’t unveiled until the fest begins, there’s less media in attendance. Rather, Telluride is about garnering critical acclaim.

Filmmaker loyalists include Schnabel, whose “Miral” could easily show up at Telluride this year.

In contrast, Venice attracts the biggest stars, thanks to its high-profile red carpet. The stature of preeming a pic at Venice helps artistic director Marco Mueller negotiate for films. One of the best money shots in the world is the red carpet outside the Palazzo.

Even with the construction going on there, Venice fest organizers assure it won’t disrupt the red carpet. But the renovation is sure to fray nerves, especially since the construction extends far beyond the Palazzo.

Much of the Lido is getting a makeover, including the Hotel des Bains, a favorite stomping ground of company execs and filmmakers. The hotel has closed for a conversion into apartments, so more people will have to stay across the lagoon with a lengthy commute to the Lido.

Toronto is the undisputed hipster and populist of the film festival scene. Last week, fest co-director Cameron Bailey set off a guessing game when he tweeted clues about the opening-night film, which turned out to be Canuck pic “Score: A Hockey Musical.”

Toronto boasts more films than any other festival and a bustling urban location, and its famously receptive audiences are counted on by producers and buyers to gauge a pic’s playability.

The enthusiastic audience response to “Slumdog Millionaire” at Toronto helped convince Fox Searchlight to pick up U.S. distribution rights. Days earlier, the pic also had been critically embraced at Telluride.

Another wrinkle this year: The New York Film Festival, Sept. 24-Oct. 10, has upped its profile with the exclusive world premiere of David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” which wasn’t even offered to Toronto or Venice.

In recent years, sponsoring org the Film Society of Lincoln Center had focused more on pleasing its hometown audience than negotiating world premieres, but this time it landed “Social Network” via producer Scott Rudin and Sony. Even with the changes and challenges facing the fall fests, there are still enough strong films available to make Venice, Telluride and Toronto worth the trip for cash-strapped companies, thanks in large part to a thin Cannes.

Call it luck of the draw.

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