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Awards Buzz Stifles Film Fest Creativity

Ever since the Acad opted to hold its shindig a month early, winners have unspooled first at top fests

Is there such a thing as too much awards buzz?

That’s a question worth asking as this year’s awards chatter emanating from Cannes, Venice and Telluride has reached an ear-splitting, all-time high here at Toronto.

This past weekend’s showings of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Rush” inspired kudos predictions that also accompany a slew of other hot festival titles that debuted in recent weeks, among them “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity,” “Philomena” and “Prisoners.”

“Captain Phillips” joins the crowded race, garnering positive reviews far in advance of its debut at the upcoming New York Film Festival.

All are being deemed worthy of a best-pic nomination. While it’s too early to forecast any outcome, that hasn’t stopped experienced pundits from doing just that: Five of them shared predictions of the best-pic winner, each with different answers (including two films that are still in post-production).

Other pics that are part of the awards conversation include “Labor Day”; “Kill Your Darlings”; “August: Osage County”; “The Fifth Estate” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” These films are thoughtful and offer superior work in multiple categories, but most of them are not considered slam dunks for best picture. Some have gotten “mixed reactions,” which can be a fest euphemism for badmouthing.

And that’s distressing to a lot of industry folk, who think all the emphasis on awards is overshadowing the true purpose of film fests.

“People are dismissing films that they should be promoting,” said one publicist who is representing several films here. “Everybody says they want more mature, smart films, and yet they’re using the awards yardstick to undermine such films.”

A decade ago, fests were designed to showcase films that needed a little push.

Dede Gardner, president of Plan B Entertainment, the production outfit behind “12 Years a Slave,” says that goal becomes even more important in a tentpole-obsessed era: “The Little Movies That Could” need all the help they can get. And festival attention can give a burst of energy to a film at a crowded time of year.”

But in the past few years, awards talk has overshadowed questions of audience appeal or artistic merit. This year’s Toronto is feeling the effects of Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” which played here and then won the best-picture Oscar — the one prize that can actually make a difference to a movie’s bottom line.

The media and distribs are partly to blame for all the awards hype, but so are fest organizers. As competition heightens to nab big stars and splashy world premieres, fest reps dangle the awards angle as bait in Hollywood.

Variety senior critic Peter Debruge pointed out in an Sept. 3 essay that only four best picture winners had debuted at film festivals before 2006: “Annie Hall” (Filmex), “Chariots of Fire” (Cannes), “The Last Emperor” (Tokyo) and “American Beauty” (Toronto). But things shifted when the Oscars moved a month earlier in 2004, inspiring earlier campaigns, including entries into festivals. Four of the five most recent winners — “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” — played Telluride. And Toronto boasted world premieres of “Crash” and “The Hurt Locker” before “Argo” firmed the kudos-fest connection. (Last year, six of the nine Academy Award contenders for best picture had debuted at a film festival.)

When Toronto unveiled its lineup this year, there was an unusually large dose of potential Oscar contenders. Partly it’s a matter of trying to replicate recent history, but there’s another simple reason: It’s an impressive year for movies.

“In 30 years, I have never seen so many strong films in a single year,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Michael Barker. The New York-based company, co-headed by Tom Bernard, has a lineup of nine potential awards contenders, including “Kill Your Darlings” (starring Daniel Radcliffe in a breakthrough performance), and the Ralph Fiennes-directed “Invisible Woman,” plus several docus and foreign-language pictures.

A number of other offerings with awards potential will continue to be showcased at upcoming festivals, including SPC’s “Foxcatcher” and Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks” (both preeming at the AFI fest), and Fox’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (New York fest). And Cannes offered such titles as Paramount’s “Nebraska” and CBS Films’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Jason Reitman, who has launched most of his movies at Toronto, agrees with Gardner that the primary goal of film festivals should be to tubthump intelligent work.

“Each year, these films get harder to release and harder to generate enthusiasm (for),” says the director of “Labor Day,” which showed both at Telluride and Toronto. “The goal is to get people to see movies that matter. How do you get people to see a movie that’s not about superheroes? You need to use every tool you have.”

One of those tools, of course, is awards buzz.

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