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Buyers look to Toronto, other fall events for salvation

Unsatisfactory Cannes crop adds importance to fest

All eyes are on Toronto. That’s the prevailing thought as fest season kicks into gear for fall.

But while industryites predict a strong festival, there’s no clear indication that the Toronto Intl. Film Festival will necessarily be a more important launch pad this year than in prior outings.

“It’s not like everyone is banging down the door to launch their Oscar campaigns here,” says Toronto fest chief Piers Handling.

Main factors behind the current focus on the Great White North’s major pic showcase (running Sept. 4-13) are a tighter kudo season — with the Oscars moving up by nearly a month to Feb. 29 — and the perception that the cream of the annual crop was absent at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“We’re hoping that Toronto will have films to buy since there was virtually nothing in Cannes,” says Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands, but he insists his fest strategy hasn’t changed to accommodate the early-arriving awards season. “Festivals are very important in terms of establishing a profile for certain movies, but you still have to pick the right movies for the right festivals.”

While one of Miramax’s big awards hopefuls, Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain,” won’t be ready for fall festivals, company is set to unspool six films at Toronto, including gala screenings for “The Barbarian Invasions” (the fest’s opener) and Nicole Kidman-Anthony Hopkins starrer “The Human Stain.” Latter world preems out of competition at the Venice Film Festival (Aug. 27-Sept. 6) are working several major fests into their strategy.

Warner Bros. preems Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” in Venice on Aug. 2 and will shuttle talent to Toronto for an Aug. 5 unspooling, with a pit-stop along the way in Gotham for more promo opportunities.

“For us, the bottom line is that fall is always a crowded period with many awards contenders. If a film has the goods, we want to get it out to audiences as soon as possible,” says Diane Nelson, senior veep of domestic theatrical marketing at Warner Bros. “There is some truth to the fact that it will be a more condensed period of time with the earlier Oscars and we’ll have to use that time effectively.”

Traditionally, Toronto has played a large role in positioning fall films for the North American market, and early buzz on pics such as 1999’s “American Beauty” and last year’s “The Quiet American” put these films on the kudo radar.

“For domestic, Toronto is a good place to get noticed. They have great audiences and a lot of important press attends,” says marketing maven Valerie Van Gelder, exec veep at Screen Gems, which will world preem Meg Ryan starrer “In the Cut” at Toronto prior to its October release.

“This film is a grand departure for Meg and she does a spectacular job, so we thought a festival would be the best place to premiere it. We want people to see the film early and start talking about it.”

Certainly, high-profile pic bows aren’t new to Toronto.

“Toronto is consistently very strong. This year, you’re going to have the strongest films from Cannes as well as movies from Locarno and Venice and movies that were just finished over the summer,” says Dylan Leiner, senior veep at Sony Pictures Classics, which expects to preem a dozen films at the fest.

“The fact that they don’t require all world premieres allows them to have a strong cross-section of North American premieres and Canadian premieres.”

Leiner adds that his company’s focus at Toronto will be on positioning a number of its acquisitions — including Robert Altman’s ballet ensembler “The Company” (a world premiere), Errol Morris doc “Fog of War” (premiered at Cannes) and “Goodbye Lenin!” (a Berlin premiere) — versus buying films.

When it comes to pic positioning for distribs that focus strictly on the North American market, Toronto’s timing and location are crucial.

“If done correctly, Toronto can be a great platform for the launch of an awards-caliber film,” says Tom Ortenberg, prexy, Lions Gate Films Releasing. “Generally speaking we look at the big three festivals — Sundance, Toronto and Cannes — and we usually aim to world premiere our higher- profile films at the one that’s closest in proximity to the release date of a particular film.”

Lions Gate’s pics in Toronto will include kudo hopefuls such as Val Kilmer starrer “Wonderland”; “Shattered Glass,” with Hayden Christensen and Chloe Sevigny; and lit adaptation “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” with Scarlett Johanssen.

“There’s not a lot that we could accomplish in Venice that we can’t do in Toronto a week later,” adds Ortenberg.