Hollywood frets over Toronto test

Fest can make or break ad, award plans

The Toronto Film Festival has evolved through multiple identities: global press junket, paparazzi haven, low-profile acquisitions mart and crowd-pleasing movie-thon.

Each pic has its own unique set of challenges; Toronto has become the laboratory where execs and filmmakers will learn the correct approach to its care and handling.

“Toronto is a shop window, if you like, for a certain group of fall movies,” says Miramax topper Daniel Battsek. “For the right movie, it’s the perfect opportunity for critical appraisal and, in a non-test-screening way, to see how a paying audience reacts to a movie.”

Its main role for many in the film biz remains that of awards-season proving ground. By the end, festgoers usually have a decent sense of whether a film has the potential of “Brokeback Mountain” or the baggage of “Elizabethtown.”

This edition, which runs Sept. 6-15, will see indie companies — Mandate, Summit, Capital, First Look (Avi Lerner and crew) touting upcoming films by showing clips and distributing scripts.

And those behind films from around the world will be looking for international sales.

To some, Toronto is a key step in an awards strategy. Some titles will have already played Cannes, Venice or Telluride, but at Toronto, execs from Hollywood studios and their niche divisions will try to gauge audience reaction and figure out how to beef up — or abandon — their kudos campaign plans.

It’s not always easy. Audiences at the unnervingly well-mannered and well-run event will seldom be impolite enough to boo. If they don’t care for something, they will simply applaud a bit less.

Along with decoding the decibel levels, studios and their specialty units have to figure out exactly how to present their all-important fall fare.

Here are eight titles with a lot at stake up north, each with its own set of hurdles.

Title: “Atonement” (Focus)

Release date: Dec. 7

Selling points: Reunion of the star, director, producer and many below-the-liners from “Pride & Prejudice”; prestige following for author Ian McEwan.Danger zone: Since the heyday of Merchant Ivory, high-gloss Brit melodrama has been hit or miss (see “The End of the Affair”).

Care and feeding: Star Keira Knightley will whip up a frenzy; auds starved for romance over the summer could make this into a hit like “Pride.”

Title: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Miramax)

Release date: Dec. 19

Selling points: Strong buzz from Cannes; compelling true basis; Oscar pedigrees of producers Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik and writer Ron Harwood.

Danger zone: General wariness about a film — in French — centered on a character who spends most of the film in a wheelchair, able to move only his left eyelid.

Care and feeding: Stress the film’s resplendent visual style (the Cannes after-party featured live butterflies and gleaming swordfish heads); leverage helmer Julian Schnabel’s elite entourage.

Title: “Fugitive Pieces”

Selling point: Like many other hopefuls, this one is looking for buyers, with no territory sales so far. But unlike the others, this one has a great showcase: It’s the opening-night attraction.

Danger zone: Canadian filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa is a local fave but is not widely known outside Canada. And the lead cast members, such as Stephen Dillane, are talented but are not marquee names.

Care and Feeding: It’ll be competing for attention with 270 other features. The challenge is to capitalize on that opening-night buzz.

Title: “Into the Wild”

Release date: Sept. 21

Selling points: Based on a bestseller by Jon Krakauer, the pic has rugged Alaskan scenery and a cast of notables (William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and Emile Hirsch).

Danger zone: Sean Penn manages to throw marketers a lot of curveballs. His direction of “Wild” instantly puts it on the shortlist of serious releases, but what if he spends his time in Toronto focused on political issues rather than tubthumping the pic?

Care and feeding: Tout the “what if” appeal of the plot, which has a young man (Hirsch) who gives up everything to rough it in Alaska; Hal Holbrook, never Oscar-nommed, is getting some attention in a supporting role.

Title: “Michael Clayton” (Warner Bros.)

Release date: Oct. 5

Selling points: Plenty for the grown-ups, chiefly star George Clooney (for once, not shot in black and white). Compared with other political pics, it’s issue-oriented but has a fluid plotline.

Danger zone: The road to success with a fall studio drama is paved with broken dreams.

Care and feeding: With Clooney automatically drawing a crowd, zero in on critics, whose support is key as “Clayton” faces off in October against Universal’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (also a Toronto preem) and Sony’s starry crime drama “We Own the Night.”

Title: “Mongol”

Selling point: It’s a sweeping epic about a subject that hasn’t been covered much: the life of young Genghis Khan. Picturehouse has domestic rights and will be making a big push, which should help sell the film in other territories.

Danger zone: The Russian-language film is rated R for scenes of bloody warfare, making it a tougher sell in some territories.

Care and feeding: Concentrate on territories that warm to this sort of historic epic.

Title: “Nothing Is Private”

Selling point: Alan Ball. The Oscar-winning scripter of “American Beauty” and creator of “Six Feet Under” has a lot of fans.

Danger zone: It’s a multistory film based on the novel “Towelhead,” teeming with political overtones and, after “Babel,” there are plenty of those this year. And Ball’s idiosyncratic style is not for everyone.

Care and feeding: The film hasn’t been seen in its entirety; reaction to the promo reel has been widely varied. Producer Ted Hope and his team need to get the film seen by the right people.

Title: “Sleuth” (Sony Classics)

Release date: Oct. 12

Selling points: Heady, cat-and-mouse thrillers are a sturdy genre; big names abound, from Michael Caine to Jude Law to director Kenneth Branagh and scribe Harold Pinter. Original 1972 version still has fans and name recognition.

Danger zone: As respected as he is by fellow actors (just ask Penn), Jude Law is no lock at the B.O. lately. His past three pics: “All the King’s Men,” “Breaking and Entering” and “The Holiday.”

Care and feeding: Sony Pictures Classics is bringing a whopping nine films to Toronto. SPC is an expert at capitalizing on fest buzz, so the challenge will be to see if this film gets the attention it deserves if folks in Toronto say it’s worth paying to see.

Sharon Swart contributed to this report.

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