Stakes raised in mating dance with potential titles

After “Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” erupted from last fall’s festivals to share eight Oscars and gross nearly $1 billion worldwide, the stakes have been raised in the courtship between festival program directors and the big Hollywood players.

With so much cash and kudos on the line, festival toppers say negotiations over the selection of major titles have become more intense than ever.

“It’s a mutual seduction. Sometimes we’re chasing them, sometimes they are chasing us,” says Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto Film Festival. “After last year, there is more of an awareness now among the major companies that a festival can do a lot for their film, not just in prestige but in dollars and cents.”

Tom Luddy, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival, agrees. “A lot of companies are definitely now holding films that could have been ready earlier in the year, because they see the fall festival circuit as what leads to awards, and from awards to a lot of business.”

In recent years, Toronto played a key role in altering the trajectory of pics such as “Juno,” which wasn’t even slated for a fall release before Toronto sought it out, and “Slumdog Millionaire,” when the enthusiasm of the Toronto team helped give Fox Searchlight the confidence to pick it up from Warner.

Bailey says he’s careful not to overstate his pitch. “It’s not so simple as for us to say, ‘We can turn the world around.’ The last thing we want is to force a film to play here, by giving the expectation that a film can explode out of Toronto and become a massive success, and then not be able to meet that expectation.”

He notes that sometimes a filmmaker has a preference for a certain festival. “Sometimes cost is a factor, where the producers can get the biggest bang for their buck, and we’ve done a good job in making that case for ourselves.”

Despite eschewing red carpets and PR hype, the more intimate and exclusive Telluride event has also grown in influence, with more distributors eager to submit their films for selection.

“It’s true that a fair number of Academy members have second homes in Telluride, or just attend the festival every year, and distributors have noticed that,” Luddy says. “Sometimes we feel under pressure to take films, and sometimes they feel under pressure from us. Sometimes we get calls from four or five different people involved with the same film.”

Like Bailey, Luddy doesn’t read scripts, but he keeps in close personal touch with directors. This year he’s been tracking his pal Walter Salles for “On the Road,” but Salles told Luddy he’s still working on the sound and won’t be ready for any fall festivals.

Occasionally, fest directors can find themselves in the middle of a push-pull between a director and a distributor, when one side wants to take a film to a festival, but the other is reluctant.

“It can happen both ways,” Bailey says. “Sometimes a studio can see business advantages to a festival, but the filmmaker is not sure, or not ready. Sometimes we’re in touch with individual filmmakers, and they are racing down to the wire to get their film ready for us, and you think, OK, that’s how you work best, but sometimes you think, you’re the kind of filmmaker who shouldn’t rush.”

Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux courted Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to get his “Biutiful” for the 2009 fest, but the film wasn’t finished in time. Inarritu was so sold on the idea of a Croisette premiere he held onto his movie for the following year, even though that meant financiers had to wait for a chance to recoup their investment.

Terrence Malick was more reluctant to wait for another year after failing to finish “Tree of Life” in time for Cannes in 2010. He was reportedly nervous of exposing his film to the glare of the Cannes competition, but Fremaux was determined to hang onto the movie after being let down the previous year, and sales agent Summit was convinced Cannes was the best launchpad. Its judgment was vindicated when “Tree of Life” won the Palme d’Or this year.

Of the A-list festivals, only Cannes has the kind of pull to persuade filmmakers and financiers to wait a whole year. But film selection is only part of challenge facing fest directors.

“Everyone allows us to make our own decision about choosing a film,” Bailey says, “but everything else is a negotiation — what day the film plays, what theater it plays in, what time it plays, what else is screening at the same time, which talent can come and for how long and in which hotel.”

As program director at San Francisco, and previously at the Los Angeles fest, Rachel Rosen has long experience wrangling with the studios.

“It’s like two different organisms trying to find how it’s possible to function together,” Rosen says. “Studios are used to doing things their own way. But it works best for both sides if there’s enough flexibility to talk about how to position a film for everyone’s benefit.”

One typical area of potential conflict is the way a festival describes a film in its program. “It’s not film criticism, but it’s not a studio press release either. Studios always have this approved boilerplate, which has to be signed off by a lot of people, and it can be difficult for them to accept that a festival needs to put its own flavor on the material,” Rosen says.

On the other hand, she argues, “one of the things festivals need to understand is that you’re setting off a series of contractual costs for a studio if you invite their film. You can’t expect a movie star to turn up without hair and makeup.”

Yet paradoxically, Rosen believes the tighter economy is making the big studios more open to the extra value a festival launch can give to their marketing — whereas it’s making smaller distribs more cautious about whether they can afford the expense.

Aside from the big three of Cannes, Venice and Berlin, the next tier of Euro fests have to shout a bit louder to get the studios’ attention. International fest directors report that the local studio offices appear to have less and less freedom to negotiate, with decisions increasingly imposed from the top in Hollywood.

The Locarno fest, which takes place in early August in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, made a big push to raise its profile in Hollywood following Olivier Pere’s first edition as artistic director last year. Pere and his head of industry relations Nadia Dresti toured all the studios in Los Angeles last fall to pitch Locarno’s spectacular open-air screenings on a vast screen in the Piazza Grande as a launchpad for late-summer releases.

They were rewarded with the European premiere of “Cowboys & Aliens” plus “Super 8″ from Paramount, and “Friends With Benefits” from Sony.

“It’s very tough to get studio films, and we put in very serious work this year to do it,” Dresti says. “Last year, the competition and the cinephile side of the festival was perfect, but in the Piazza something was missing and the public was not happy. We had French directors and German directors, but not Hollywood stars.”

Another fest hoping for a higher Hollywood profile this year is Stockholm in November. The fest is bidding to secure the premiere of David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” from Sony, the biggest film ever shot in Sweden, ahead of its simultaneous Dec. 21 opening in North America and Scandinavia.

That’s a unique case — the biggest film ever made in Sweden, a remake of the country’s biggest global hit, based on a blockbuster Swedish bestseller. Fest director Git Scheynius is optimistic about her chances, but says in general, getting high-profile pics from the U.S. studios has become much harder in the past decade.

The main problem, she says, is the threat of piracy, which has tightened the international release schedule. “Ten years ago, it was easier to get films, but now you have a very narrow timeframe in which films are available,” she says.

Piera Detassis, artistic director of the Rome Film Festival, laments that unless a big Hollywood film is opening in Italy that same month, the studios won’t play ball.

“For Rome, it’s very important to acquire big American films,” she says. “But in the last two years, it’s been more and more difficult. The studios don’t need to put their films in a festival, and it’s very expensive for them. Big stars mean private planes, publicists, hair and makeup, personal assistants. In the past, the studios would cover the cost; now they ask 10 times the contribution from the film festival, but we only pay accommodation.”

By contrast, the London Film Festival, Rome’s direct rival in October, has been embraced by the studios in recent years to launch the important British front of their awards campaigns. Studios have also started using the London event as a cost-effective base for European junkets.

Artistic director Sandra Hebron, who is programming her final edition this year, says: “However hard I lobby them, they are only going to give us films if it makes sound commercial sense. But I certainly have to do less pushing than I used to.”

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