Toronto’s awards springboard

Fall Fest Preview 2012

There are many elements required to mount a successful awards campaign: Snappy ads are a given; critical buzz is invaluable but not purchasable; then there’s that gray-area strategy of wooing voters without running afoul of Academy rules.

Of course, a good start out of the gates as the awards season is just getting under way can’t hurt, and for at least a decade now, landing a berth at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival has allowed many a studio and filmmaker to hit the ground running. There is a long list of films that screened at TIFF then went on to success on the awards circuit. If you rule out some of the sneak premieres at Telluride the Labor Day weekend prior, some of the more conspicuous Toronto debutantes include “American Beauty,” “Black Swan,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Descendants,” “Moneyball” and, perhaps most famously, “The King’s Speech.”

It’s not unusual to see the top awards hopefuls playing Toronto as well as Telluride and Venice. These festivals “provide the original cast of characters that will hopefully be there at the end of festival season,” says Mark Slone, senior VP at Canadian distributor Alliance Films.

Slone cites the example of Alliance-financed “King’s Speech,” audience award winner at Toronto in 2010, as a prime example of the fest as an awards-season springboard.

But can Toronto still work the same awards magic in 2012? Most industryites contacted say it can. But, like anything earmarked as “prestige” product, there are no guarantees.

“The (Toronto) festival has really become the awards season curtain-raiser,” says Cassian Elwes, partner at Evolution Independent. “It’s the place you want to go if you have a film that you think might make it to the Oscars. The timing is so good.”

On the other hand, Neal Dodson, founding partner at Before the Door Pictures, talks of what he calls a “champagne problem.” “It’s so close to the fall release season that if a pic plays really well at Toronto but doesn’t have a plan in place, that’s a challenge for the distributor,” says Dodson. “But it’s a high-class problem.”

Historically, films scheduled for a platform release in the fall are best positioned to ride the Toronto buzz into the home stretch of late December/early January. And with Toronto attracting more film journalists than any other fest in North America, that buzz factor is built into its DNA. “If the film gets good press, it naturally flows that it will get good response in awards season,” said Susan Jackson, CEO of Freestyle Releasing.

With any success, these films will hit the biggest amount of screens when Academy members vote early in the new year.

Recent history also has shown the fest to be well-positioned to begin the conversation for the foriegn-language shortlist. Two Canadian films that played Toronto, “Incendies” and “Monsieur Lazhar,” have nabbed foreign-language Oscar nominations in the past two years.

“Toronto brought very favorable attention to ‘Incendies’ and set it up well for the U.S. release,” says Charlotte Mickie, executive VP of international sales at Entertainment One, which handled “Incendies” globally.

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