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Toronto Film Festival: 7 Burning Questions from Nate Parker to ‘La La Land’

Nate Parker
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

The Toronto Film Festival is always known for its hodgepodge of big studio titles, small indies and everything in between. But this year’s gathering up north is facing more uncertainty than usual. Yes, there will be a smattering of Oscars favorites, but Toronto 2016 may also set the stage for a few upsets, surprises, and scandals. Variety‘s Brent Lang and Ramin Setoodeh look ahead to what might unfold.

(1) Can Nate Parker Handle Difficult Questions About his Past? 
The Toronto Film Festival serves as the official launch of awards season, but all eyes will be on Nate Parker this year. The controversial star, writer, director and producer of “The Birth of a Nation,” has struggled in the last few weeks to answer questions about a dark incident from his past: in 1999, as an undergraduate at Penn State, Parker was accused of raping a 18-year-old classmate in his apartment. Although he was cleared of charges, questions about the case–which also involved his co-writer Jean Celestin–persist. Now journalists will finally be able to confront  Parker, when he appears at a press conference for his film about Nat Turner. In the last few weeks, Parker had asked his cast not to grant any interviews, but they will also be with him and will have to speak about the case in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse. Toronto could be a make-or-break for the film’s release strategy. If Fox Searchlight wants to turn  a profit on “The Birth of a Nation,” which it bought for a record-breaking $17.5 million, it will to redirect the conversation back to movie.

(2) Will “La La Land” be the Oscars Favorite?
With “The Birth of a Nation” possibly sidelined by controversy, Damian Chazelle’s musical ode to Tinseltown has emerged as an awards season juggernaut. The film received a rapturous reception and critical plaudits at the Venice Film Festival and was the toast of Telluride. It was so beloved that Tom Hanks took a break from hawking “Sully,” the Clint Eastwood drama he headlines, to gush over the picture. “If the audience doesn’t go and embrace something as wonderful as this then we are all doomed,” he said. Pundits think that “La La Land” has what it takes to go the distance, and Toronto will be a key test of its endurance. A musical hasn’t won Best Picture since “Chicago” in 2002, but that was based on a stage sensation. The last original musical to capture the top prize was 1958’s “Gigi,” so “La La Land” will need to hit all the right high notes.

(3) Will it Be Early Bedtime for Buyers? 
Toronto had traditionally kept distributors up all night with intense bidding wars for projects like “Begin Again” (which the Weinstein Co. scooped up for $8 million in 2013) or “Top Five” (the 2014 Chris Rock comedy that sold to Paramount for $12.5 million). But no movie from 2016’s festival inspired that kind of heat, which prompted Variety to call it the year of “let’s not make a deal.” As new players (from A24 to Bleecker Street) entered the market, it has resulted in an unexpected trend: distributors are more likely to land high-profile movies in earlier stages of production, leaving fewer completed films on the Toronto market. Regardless, these titles are among the films still hoping to fetch big bucks: “Colossal,” a monster movie starring Anne Hathaway; “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman as Mrs. Kennedy; “Their Finest,” a WWII romance, and “Carrie Pilby,” a crowd-pleaser headlined by Bel Powley as a single New Yorker.

(4) How Much Will Amazon and Netflix Continue to Splurge? 
The streaming giants have routinely been counted on to outspend even the major studios in order to nab hot projects such as “Manchester by the Sea” (for $10 million by Amazon out of Sundance) and “Beasts of No Nation” (which went to Netflix for $12 million last year). But both companies are trying to move from buyers to producing and are making more projects in-house, instead of simply spending big at festivals. Plus, it’s not clear that either company has many spots left in their slate for shiny new acquisitions, given that Amazon will spend the coming months releasing  “Patterson,” “The Dressmaker,” and new projects by Todd Haynes and Woody Allen, and Netflix will be busy fielding Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” “Bright” from the “Suicide Squad” team of David Ayer and Will Smith, and “War Machine” starring Brad Pitt.

(5) Can “The Magnificent Seven” Avoid the Opening Night Curse?
It’s becoming a dangerous honor. The films that usually open Toronto have had a rocky time using the perch to successfully launch their theatrical rollouts. Last year’s opening night film, “Demolition,” divided reviewers and failed to attract crowds when it hit theaters. The previous two openers, 2014’s “The Judge” and 2013’s “The Fifth Estate,” were critically-maligned box office disasters. You have to go back to 2012’s “Looper” to find a film that went on to have a solid commercial reception. On paper, “The Magnificent Seven,” a shoot em up with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, has the goods to break the curse. The Sony release is easily one of the most anticipated films of the fall and Washington and director Antoine Fuqua have teamed to great success in the past with “Training Day” and “The Equalizer.”

(6) Can Focus Features Return to Its Roots?
After briefly flirting with becoming a genre shop, Focus Features ditched the horror films and returned to its indie roots. The refashioned label, has a new chairman in Peter Kujawski, an old international distribution hand, and a familiar mandate: to be a dominant player in the prestige game. To that end, Focus will be a major presence at Toronto, fielding the true-life Civil Rights tale “Loving,” Tom Ford’s noir-ish “Nocturnal Animals,” and fantasy drama “A Monster Calls.” The clear ambition is to have all three of the films leave the festival as major Oscar contenders — an achievement that would justify parent studio Universal’s decision to change gears yet again. “Loving” and “Nocturnal Animals” impressed critics when they premiered at Cannes and Venice, respectively, but reviewers have yet to weigh in on “A Monster Calls,” which makes its debut in Canada. It is directed by J. A. Bayona, who has just been handed the keys to the “Jurassic Park” franchise and will oversee the next film in the dino-series.

(7) Will Toronto Finally Offer an Oscar-Worthy Female Director?
It’s been just over six years since the Academy made history by naming Kathryn Bigelow as the first woman best director. Unfortunately, that was also the last time that a woman was nominated in the category. Toronto, like Sundance, prides itself on diversity both in front of and behind the camera, and many of this year’s buzzy titles are helmed by women. Our best early guess: members of the Academy’s director’s branch could be wowed by Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” shot on a seven-week road trip across the country with mostly untrained actors. When the movie bowed at Cannes, it had critics and audiences raving. Will Oscar voters feel the same way?