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From ‘Joker’ Controversy to Oscar Contenders, 5 Burning Questions at the Toronto Film Festival

Hollywood decamps for Canada this week hoping that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival will help define the coming awards race and give it a better sense of studios’ appetites for making movies that are aimed at adults.

Splashy, star-studded premieres of “Joker” and “Ford v Ferrari” will command the lion’s share of the press attention and will serve as a reminder that nobody can put on a party like the movie business. But most studio executives and agents have more on their minds than rubbing shoulders with “Joaquin” or “Christian” or “Matt.” They see an industry in transition, one hit hard by the rise of streaming services and declining box office returns. As Toronto gets ready to kick off on Thursday, here are five burning questions that the festival may answer.

1. Will the Streamers Come to Play and Pay?

Agents are licking their chops over the prospect that some new buyers could be entering the market. Disney, Warner Media, Comcast and Apple are all gearing up to launch streaming services in the coming months and they need content, and lots of it, as they arm themselves for battle against Netflix. That means that the likes of Disney Plus, HBO Max and Apple TV Plus could all be in the hunt for some of the big films looking for distribution and that could keep the prices for films rising. That could be important because…

2. Sundance Buyers Got Burned. Will That Depress Sales?

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“Late Night” and “Blinded by the Light” were some of the biggest deals out of Sundance, landing big paydays from Amazon and New Line before going on to collapse at the box office. It was yet another lesson in festival fever, a movie biz malady that convinces studio executives to lose all financial reason and shell out for movies with dicey commercial prospects. Will Toronto be a cure? And if studios suddenly get conservative with their spending, will that mean that some of the hot acquisition titles such as “Bad Education,” a high school school cheating drama with Hugh Jackman, and “Wasp Network,” a spy thriller with Penelope Cruz, may have to settle for smaller deals.

3. Can STX Catch a Break?

It’s been a rough few months for STX. The embattled studio has been dogged by rumors of financial troubles and has suffered a string of executive defections as box office duds such as “Poms” and “Ugly Dolls” have piled up. But nothing changes a bad narrative like a well-timed hit and it looks like STX has that in “Hustlers.” The drama about a group of strippers stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu and the early buzz is terrific — there’s even some Oscar heat on J. Lo. If “Hustlers” plays well in Toronto, it could bolster the film’s Oscar chances and provide STX with a much-needed lifeline.

4. Will “Joker” Be Plagued by Controversy?

“Joker,” a very R-rated look at the early days of Batman’s main antagonist, was the darling of the Venice Film Festival, capturing rave reviews and an eight-minute (we timed it!) standing ovation. But the film also inspired controversy. Some critics and social media commentators worried that “Joker” sympathizes with a homicidal loner at a time when America and the rest of the world are plagued by gun violence. That all but guarantees that “Joker” will be a topic of fierce debate at Toronto, where it will screen again, as critics and audiences grapple over the questions of whether it’s a brilliant piece of art or a danger to society. If the filmmakers are able to address those fears, “Joker” could be the rare comic-book movie that also becomes a certified Oscar contender. And the timing is propitious because…

5. Toronto Always Fields Oscar Nominees. What Will This Year’s Contenders Be?

Netflix’s “Marriage Story” and Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari” emerged from Venice and Telluride looking like early Oscar favorites, but they’re going to have to fight for those golden statues. Toronto will debut its own set of award hopefuls, chief among them Warner Bros. courtroom drama “Just Mercy” and Fox Searchlight’s World War II dark comedy “Jojo Rabbit.” Plus, there’s always a movie that comes out of nowhere to insert itself into the Oscar conversation. The race is on.

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