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Toronto’s Midnight Madness Delivers Hot Product

Sidebar turns 25 as the hunger for genre pics grows at the box office

While the rest of the fest generates awards season talk, Toronto’s Midnight Madness plays to what’s hot at the current box office.

With films such as “Mama,” “The Conjuring” and “The Purge” beating out big-budget studio fare, Midnight Madness gives auds thrills, chills, and fills coffers for buyers.

For 25 years, the tight, highly curated sidebar has presented mostly world preems in a screening context that feels like a hyperkinetic concert event, and delivered the festival’s wildest, most unpredictable red-carpet antics. This year’s edition opens with Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson’s enticingly titled “All Cheerleaders Die,” and includes films from Midnight vets Eli Roth and Alex de la Iglesia, and feature-helming newcomers Joe Begos and Juno Mak — a slate that will attract an ever-expanding array of aggressive buyers hoping to turn a low-budget aud-pleasing chiller into mainstream gold, or seeking fare with strong VOD potential.

“It’s been fun to see the trajectory in the past 10 years of these films being considered the lowest form, in a sense, to becoming the hottest commercial properties,” says Roth by phone from Chile, while putting the finishing touches on his jungle-set cannibal movie “The Green Inferno,” which world premieres in Midnight Madness.

“I arrived (in 2002) as a guy who just wanted to make movies. My film was originally rejected by TIFF but wound up being programmed dead last in Midnight Madness. I was told most of the buyers had left town, but when I went home Variety headlines were calling it the biggest sale of the festival,” recalls Roth, referring to “Cabin Fever,” which was made for $1.5 million and ended up grossing more than $33 million at the box office worldwide.

“ ‘Cabin Fever’ was one of three films that put Lionsgate on the map in the genre space,” recalls fest vet Peter Block, then prexy of acquisitions, home entertainment and new media, for Lionsgate, which bought the film in Toronto. “A lot of the movie’s success had to do with the sensibility of (programmer) Colin Geddes who, in my mind, represents the audience.

“Colin’s approach is, ‘I’m going to give you a couple of things you expect, a couple of things you’re going to talk about, and a couple of things you won’t be sure if you like or not,’ ” continues Block, now prexy and general manager of FearNet Television. “The social experience of reacting to a film, especially a genre film, with an audience is being lost, which makes Midnight all the more vital.”

James Wan’s “Insidious” (which went to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and was the first film distributed by FilmDistrict) and James Gunn’s “Super” (snapped up by IFC Films) are just a couple of titles whose raucous reception likely accelerated their pickups in Toronto in 2010.

While the rest of the festival lineup generates awards season talk, Midnight Madness plays to what’s hot at the current box office.

“The anticipation surrounding the Midnight Madness lineup announcement this year has been particularly bouyant,” says Alex Walton, president of sales and distribution for Exclusive Media.

In year one, 1988, Midnight Madness launched but even in that first year, its rep as a showcase for future cult faves  was set with a slate programmed by Noah Cowan that included Frank Henenlotter’s “Brain Damage.” Standing in line for that beloved horror-comedy was a young Geddes, freshly arrived in Toronto to study graphic design. He became a regular during the Cowan era — taking in Midnight pics such as “Meet the Feebles,” “Man Bites Dog,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Cemetery Man” and “Orgazmo” — and took over the reins in 1998.

“When I started the climate was different and people weren’t buying genre films, they were going straight to video,” he says. “One of Midnight’s strengths is its singular curated vision. It’s extremely focused — every film has to engage the audience in the first 15 minutes, and it can’t have the same old misogynist slasher conventions. I love when I look at the audience today and see a 50-50 male to female ratio — the demographic of the Midnight audience has really evolved.”

Producer Keith Calder, who brought Jonathan Levine’s “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” (which he exec-produced) to Toronto in 2006, notes that Geddes has a great reputation for picking films that audiences love, and the buyers in Toronto make sure to show up at Midnight to see them with an audience.

“We knew Midnight had a strong reputation with horror fans but we didn’t fully realize how lucky we were when we got in,” he recalls. “The night of the screening, there we were in a parking area, negotiating a deal with the Weinstein Co.

“I think a lot of the magic and energy comes from more behind-the-scene things — how Colin supports and maintains relationships with filmmakers so they want to come back with their next film,” continues Calder, who returned in 2011 with Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next,” which Lionsgate released Aug. 23.

“It’s really an auteur-driven section where the filmmakers are treated as stars,” says Tom Quinn of Radius-TWC. “Based on the titles it looks like it’s going to be another exciting year — if you’re at not Midnight to buy movies, then you’re not serious about buying movies.”

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