Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Documentaries

Prepare to get real at Toronto as several factors, including a rules change for Oscar, more available product and a competitive fall release schedule, have conspired the make the fest among the best places for a documentary to grab attention.

Besides its opening-night film, Davis Guggenheim’s U2 docFrom the Sky Down,” Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which screens Sept. 11, now has a sensational coda. The filmmakers, in two HBO docs, had chronicled the case of the so-called West Memphis Three, young men imprisoned 18 years for a murder they said they did not commit. Last month, those men were freed in a complex legal deal, and “Paradise Lost 3′s” festival screenings promise emotionally charged Q&As as the real world impact of the docs sinks in.

Berlinger and Sinofsky are among the bumper crop of established filmmakers whose films are debuting at TIFF’s Real to Reel. Joining them in his TIFF debut will be Morgan Spurlock with “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope.”

Spurlock loves the festival for the attention it brings to nonfiction films.

“And with a music documentary opening the festival that speaks volumes to how much this genre has changed and how great it is to have this launch pad for docs going into awards season,” says Spurlock, who edited down 600 hours of footage for his chronicle of the super-sized pop culture event.

TIFF doc programmer Thom Powers — who’s now in his sixth year helming the section — says a major change to Academy doc-qualifying rules has impacted the fest’s profile. Previously, to qualify for the Oscar race, a feature doc had to play in theaters by Aug. 31. A new rule, championed by Powers and 75 filmmakers, has extended that deadline to Dec. 31. Documentaries can now take advantage of “the full effect of what Toronto can do for a film,” Powers says. “That shift opened the door for documentaries to take more advantage of the fall season when moviegoers have demonstrated that they are hungry for more serious filmmaking.”

TIFF’s successful launch last year of the Bruce Springsteen doc “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” also caught the attention of the music and film biz, notes Powers. TIFF served as an international platform for the doc’s release and helped propel sales of the Springsteen music catalog.

“From the Sky Down” began as modest companion piece, funded by U2′s Mercury Records, to the 20th anniversary re-release of the band’s “Achtung Baby.”

Guggenheim and his crew had remarkable access to the band: via interviews during rehearsals in Berlin, where the album had been recorded, worktapes from that period and interviews with U2 collaborators.

Rather than a broad look at U2′s career, the doc captures a specific pivotal moment in the band’s career, says producer Ted Skillman. “It tells a remarkable story about the life of a band and why that band is a family,” he says.

Underscoring the importance of docs at this year’s fest, “From the Sky Down” and Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty” screen at the largest TIFF theaters (the Roy Thomson Hall and the Ryerson Theater, respectively), and other doc screenings are sprinkled throughout TIFF’s venues.

There’s no ghettoization of doc programming and the fest has a well-earned rep as a very reliable source of doc finds, says Ryan Werner, senior vice president marketing and publicity of Sundance Selects/IFC Films.

“A TIFF premiere is an important imprimatur and impressive credential to have,” agrees sales agent Andrew Herwitz, of the Film Sales Co. Although docs don’t necessarily “sell on the spot,” he sees a resurgence of appetite for nonfiction. “There’s a proliferation of buyers and new buyers coming on the market.”

As delineation takeup increases on various digital distribution channels such as VOD and streaming websites, more companies are licensing docs.

TIFF’s banner lineup from doc helmers includes Jessica Yu’s Participant Prods.-funded “Last Call at the Oasis,” about the deepening worldwide water crisis; Nick Broomfield’s take on U.S. politics via “Sarah Palin — You Betcha!”; Frederick Wiseman’s Cannes player “Crazy Horse”; Alex Gibney’s pro hockey themed “The Last Gladiators”; Werner Herzog once again in nonfiction form with “Gazing Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life,” which investigates a triple homicide in Texas; “The Love We Make,” Albert Maysles’ 16mm B&W film of Paul McCartney’s October 2001 9/11 memorial concert; and Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young Life,” debuting in TIFF’s Maverick section. Both Demme and Young will be in Toronto to present the film.

Although there’s a healthy industry presence at Toronto, festgoers are more than just cinephiles and industryites. Real world auds that reflect Toronto’s multiple expat communities means both distribs and filmmakers can plausibly evaluate a film’s playability.

“You get a window into (how) a regular audience (reacts),” says Yu, helmer of “Last Call at the Oasis.”

And that in turn may spur acquistions.

“TIFF has always been a good acquisition festival,” says Werner. “In the last five years there’s been a shift to heavily use it to launch films,” pointing to the success IFC Films has had with “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (domestic cume at more than $5.2 million) and Errol Morris’ “Tabloid,” which both premiered at TIFF in 2010.

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