Euros in Toronto 2012

This year’s Toronto Film Festival is playing host to a veterans’ parade of European filmmakers, who are attempting to emulate the success of “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” by reaching out to mature moviegoers neglected in Hollywood’s slavish pursuit of fanboys and Twihards.

Arthouse auteurs from Europe’s old school of committed filmmaking, including Costa-Gavras, Margarethe Von Trotta and Sally Potter, are seeking a wider audience than they have enjoyed for decades, with more accessible stories and high-profile casts.

Seasoned directors such as Mike Newell, Neil Jordan, Roger Michell, Marco Bellocchio, Patrice Leconte, Susanne Bier and Sergio Castellitto, and established younger names like Joe Wright, Francois Ozon, Thomas Vinterberg, Laurent Cantet and Juan Antonio Bayona, are also exploring serious themes through commercial packages of cast and material with a cross-generational appeal.

Adding to the fest’s autumnal flavor, the Toronto crowd will be treated to the last film by Claude Miller, who died earlier this year at age 70, and the first by the 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman, with the world premiere of his British pic “Quartet,” set in a retirement home for opera singers and starring a peerless ensemble of senior citizens, including Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins.

“It feels like there’s very little in terms of exciting young talent emerging,” says Robert Walak, senior VP of worldwide acquisitions at Alliance Films. “This year’s Toronto feels, not safe exactly, but quite a classy selection. There’s definitely an increased awareness of older audiences, and a conscious push by distributors to sell to that audience.”

They aren’t shying away from the kind of dark and challenging subject matter that used to condemn most European cinema to the festival ghetto. The Toronto lineup contains the usual litany of suicide, genocide, abuse, politics, perversion, obsession, insanity, bereavement and other disasters.

But this is mediated through the marketable form of classic literature (“Anna Karenina,” “Great Expectations,” “Therese Desqueyroux”), 20th century history (“Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Hannah Arendt,” “Kon-Tiki,” “Foxfire,” “Ginger & Rosa”) and packed ensembles with something for everyone.

After all, beneath its feel-good veneer, “The Artist” is the story of a man suffering a midlife crisis who tries to kill himself. The swelling climax of “The King’s Speech” confronts the impending horror of WWII. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” makes comic romance out of the brutal realities of aging, while “The Intouchables” takes a light touch to issues of disability and race.

“My gut feeling about mainstream American cinema is that the studios have dropped the ball by concentrating on guys wearing funny costumes flying about,” says Xavier Marchand, Alliance’s president of international distribution, which backed “The King’s Speech” and “Quartet.”

“There’s a big gap in the marketplace for the older and more discerning audiences, which is only serviced in the U.S. during awards season,” Marchand says. “In Europe, people are not averse to watching intelligent films throughout the year.”

Toronto’s closing film, “Song for Marion” by Brit helmer Paul Andrew Williams, exemplifies the quest for the gray dollar, with silver-haired sex symbol Terence Stamp as a grumpy husband who joins a choir to take his mind off his wife’s illness.

“A lot of these films are being made for mature audiences, on the back of ‘The King’s Speech’ doing so well,” agrees Danny Perkins, CEO of Studiocanal U.K. “It’s a reaction to the way the economy has changed, and to the fact that the independent business isn’t driven by DVD any more. People are looking for quality over genre, for films that play well on TV as well as theatrically, because that’s where the value is to be found.”

Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa,” about teenage girls involved in the Ban the Bomb movement in 1960s London, is her first pic to be backed by a U.K. broadcaster, BBC Films. Elle Fanning leads a cast that includes Annette Bening, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola and Tim Spall.

Potter’s last film, “Rage,” consisted entirely of monologues, and her previous pic, “Yes,” was in iambic pentameter. Neither was widely distributed. But with “Ginger & Rosa,” her longtime producer Christopher Sheppard says, “Sally absolutely set out to write a script that has no impediment to reaching the widest possible audience.”

“You’d be a fool not to recognize that film distributors and financiers have become more risk-averse, and it would be perverse to take on cinematic challenges just for their own sake, in the experimental tradition of a European auteur,” he says. “Sally sees herself as an entertainer, and she wanted to tell an emotionally real and accessible story. But of course she’s still an auteur, her esthetic and political sensibilities have not changed, she had the same process of putting together the cast and crew as ever, so it’s been an interesting challenge.”

He rejects the suggestion that the 1960s storyline is more likely to appeal to baby boomers than to today’s teens.

“It’s not just a historical piece. It’s dealing with issues about saving the planet that resonate entirely with the concerns of young people today. Our target audience is under 25, not the traditional arthouse audience for a Sally Potter film.”

For distributors, of course, the holy grail is to find a package that appeals to old and young alike. But whether European auteurs are attempting to reach a new following, or simply to re-connect with an old one, the fact that so many are now targeting any kind of audience at all feels like something of a breakthrough.

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