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Oscar Season Races to Fall Festivals

The right fest can make or break a title

As the annual Oscar campaign comes to resemble a presidential race more by the year, the fall festival calendar starts to resemble a long political primary, with its own Carvilles, Plouffes, and perhaps even its Atwaters. But as even the smaller entities on the autumnal circuit begin to gain more and more importance, where a film chooses to center its campaign becomes an increasingly complicated question.

Of course, Oscar champions can arrive from anywhere. In the past decade, best picture winners “Crash,” “The Departed” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” were all festival no-shows by design. “The Artist” and “No Country for Old Men” both opted for Cannes bows in the spring. And last year, “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty” all racked up best picture Oscar noms despite missing the festival gauntlet entirely, due to the simple fact that they weren’t finished in time.

Yet the sheer quantity of fall festival players in the awards mix has become rather striking. “Argo,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “Million Dollar Baby” all broke big at Toronto before winning Oscar’s end-of-night prize. Venice has seen its share of kudos-friendly launches with “The Black Swan,” “The Wrestler” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Even the New York Film Festival has started to become a key launchpad, with “Life of Pi,” “Flight” and “Lincoln” all bowing at the October festival last year.

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It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Toronto, which can serve as the Super Tuesday and the Iowa Caucus combined. This year, the festival will see bows of “Rush,” “August: Osage County” and “The Fifth Estate,” as well as “Labor Day” from Jason Reitman, whose “Juno” was TIFF’s darling of the year back in 2007. Yet navigating the festival can be treacherous, as its offerings are simply so voluminous that even a well-received, strongly reviewed bow can be forgotten by the next day. As one veteran awards strategist notes, “After what happens there, the press comes back with a need to check into the hospital for exhaustion.”

And then there’s also the festival’s reputation for somewhat irrational exuberance.

“You have to be patient (with Toronto), because that’s a lot of time if it doesn’t go right,” says an awards strategist, citing a film that “just died” at its Toronto gala. “Would they have benefitted from not having the microscope in that setting? If you put 2,000 people in a theater, and if everyone expects Toronto to be the festival where they’re very polite and supportive of films, and then even in that environment it doesn’t happen, you’ve gotta swallow pretty hard at that point.”

In that sense, it’s always a good idea to hedge one’s bets. Last year, “Argo” staged a clever coup by bowing to industryites first at a surprise screening in Telluride, where it managed to attain “must-see” status well before it made its way to Toronto. (Telluride similarly offered pre-Toronto glimpses of “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” )

While Telluride’s role as a pre-Toronto buzz-builder has become rather well-established, the glut of fests following Toronto have all begun to play key roles of their own. “Silver Linings Playbook” opted for the carpet-bombing approach last year, playing any fest that would have it after its time at TIFF, yet doubling down on some of the smaller festivals in September and October can pay dividends as well.

The long-running New York Film Festival has emerged as something of an anti-Toronto in that regard, allocating plentiful, concentrated attention to its centerpiece and closing film spots, which this year will go to Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” respectively. Tom Hanks starrer “Captain Phillips” will open NYFF shortly before doing likewise at the London Film Festival, where Hanks’ “Saving Mr. Banks” will close it. Even the often-obscurantist AFI Film Festival has become something of a player in recent seasons, hosting the first Los Angeles showing of “Lincoln” last year.

The oldest and most august of the major fall fests, Venice can also be the biggest enigma as a momentum builder. An important destination for more challenging films that can benefit from the imprimatur of European arthouse sophistication, the fest has also seen the likes of “Elizabethtown,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Ides of March” register strong showings without that love fully translating to Stateside Oscar voters.

In the end, all the strategizing in the world is less important than simply knowing what type of film you have on your hands.
“You just know sometimes without having to do any second guessing whether a festival is going to help you, and which one, as soon as you see a rough cut of the film,” says one publicist. “If you’re prescient, you can even see it in your dailies.”

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