Play the Toronto film festival? It's an exacting calculation

TORONTO--To most movie fans, the Toronto International Film Festival that kicks off Thursday is simply a showcase for many of the fall's most anticipated titles.

But to the studios and filmmakers exhibiting these films, it represents something more complicated: a set of carefully constructed strategies that seek to balance hype and expectation, prestige and populism.

Stars, audiences and media will gather at the city's elegant Roy Thomson Hall Thursday for the opening-night premiere of "The Fifth Estate," Bill Condon's look at Julian Assange and WikiLeaks starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the polarizing information crusader. The event marks the start of an 11-day extravaganza that in many ways shapes the fortunes of the film season ahead.

WATCH: Toronto International Film Festival 2013 trailers

How a movie is received at Toronto goes a long way toward determining its fate--in recent years, enthusiastic reactions to "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Argo" sent those films on their way to box office and awards success--which would seem to make a Toronto appearance a no-brainer.

But the festival game has become more slippery than ever.

At a time when social media have cranked up pre-release publicity ever louder, deciding which festival to take a fall title to — or whether to take it to one at all — is fraught with questions.

Does the abundance of media mandate maximum festival play?Or does exposing a movie to the glare of an unpredictable blogosphere pose too much of a risk?

Does a prime festival slot offer a stamp of quality that money could never buy? Or does it raise expectations to a level few films can actually match?

INTERACTIVE: From Toronto to the Oscars? Well...

And does premiering a movie weeks or months before it comes to theaters even carry much value at a time when the public can have the attention span of a mosquito?

"Everyone these days is trying to figure out the playbook," said Bob Berney, the distribution guru behind hits such as "Memento" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and whose company, Picturehouse, will bring the music film "Metallica Through the Never" to Toronto this year with an Imax presentation. "And really there is no playbook."

Toronto poses a particular appeal — and challenge — because of the volume of titles and the large amount of media interest. In an interview, festival chief Cameron Bailey touted that role, noting that Toronto set a record with 140 premieres last year and was likely to break it this year. "It's one-stop shopping for media, for audiences and for the business," he said.

Some movies will arrive here after playing recent festivals in Telluride or Venice, looking to build on momentum, including the Alfonso Cuarón sci-fi pic "Gravity," the Denis Villeneuve kidnapping thriller "Prisoners" and the Steve McQueen period drama "12 Years a Slave."

WATCH: Trailers from Venice

Others will be given their world premieres at Toronto (Jean-Marc Vallée's AIDS drama "The Dallas Buyers Club," Justin Chadwick's biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and John Wells' adaptation of the stage hit "August: Osage County") with an eye toward making a singular splash in front of hundreds of tastemakers.

Then there are the buzzed-about fall movies that won't be at Toronto at all, hoping they can better stand out in a less crowded environment (Paul Greengrass' Somali pirate picture "Captain Phillips" and Ben Stiller's remake of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," both being given their world premieres at the New York Film Festival three or more weeks later, or other would-be contenders such as Olivier Dahan's royals drama "Grace of Monaco" and David O. Russell's con-man movie "American Hustle," which for the moment are bypassing festivals entirely).

Even hybrid strategies are a possibility. Warner Bros. decided to wait to debut "Her," Spike Jonze's futuristic romance starring Joaquin Phoenix and due out Dec. 18. It will be given its world premiere in mid-October as the closing-night title of the New York Film Festival and avoid the buzz saw of Toronto.

But unable to entirely resist the lure of the Toronto media frenzy, the studio this weekend will show footage from the film and host a talk with Jonze as part of an event it's calling a "unique interactive session" that it hopes will begin stoking anticipation for the film.

Oscars' domino effect

For years, festivals were just an ancillary part of a studio's fall rollout, a way to get some early buzz going but hardly an all-important moment. Which festivals a movie played was rarely a make-or-break proposition at either the box office or the awards podium.

That began to change a decade ago, when the Oscars were moved up by about a month, giving the festivals of late summer and early fall more influence with voters, and in turn making those earlier nominations and prizes more central in shaping holiday moviegoing choices.

And in the last few years, the emergence of social media and a culture of instant judgment--
not to mention the growing importance of  confabs in Telluride and New York--has made this a system on steroids. In 2007, Focus Features debuted Joe Wright's "Atonement" to rave reviews at Toronto, then went quiet for several months before bringing out the movie in December. In 2000, "Memento" went even further, playing Toronto and eventually Sundance and a host of other festivals as part of a rollout that took nearly a year before hitting theaters. Many executives laugh at the idea of trying that today.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival 2013

Instead, most movies choose to keep the time between a festival premiere and a commercial release as short as possible.

Focus last week moved the release date of awards hopeful "Dallas Buyers Club" from Dec. 6 to Nov. 1, compressing that gap. Other Toronto movies, such as "Prisoners" or Ron Howard's Formula One drama "Rush," are playing Toronto just two weeks before opening commercially.

"When it comes to media for movies, there is a beast that has to be constantly fed, because otherwise the news cycle will move on to something else," said Andrew Kosove, one of the producers of "Prisoners." "Waiting isn't always an option."

WATCH: Trailers from Telluride

When a movie does reach a festival well before its release date, studios are sometimes in the odd position of hosting a noisy premiere while simultaneously trying to keep their movie quiet. Though there will be a glitzy red carpet, the Weinstein Co. executives behind Wells' "August: Osage County," one of the few December releases to premiere at Toronto this year, have decided to limit interviews with stars Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep to ensure interest doesn't peak too soon.

Others point to a nuanced calculus that depends on the kind of movie being released.

"If you have a 'King's Speech' or a 'Slumdog Millionaire' that isn't really occupying the No. 1 slot in any pundit's list at the beginning of September, getting a lot of early exposure at a festival is really important even if you're not coming out for a few months," said Megan Colligan, head of marketing at Paramount Pictures. "But with a movie with bigger stars that you can sell more easily in a 30-second spot, or a movie really high on everyone's list, it often makes sense to wait."

PHOTOS: Telluride Film Festival 2013

The studio chose the former strategy this year with Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," a black-and-white family drama with no A-listers, taking it to the Cannes Film Festival in May, then Telluride last week ahead of its Nov. 22 release.

By contrast, the studio took a gamble last year with Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," choosing to forgo nearly all festivals until a New York Film Festival premiere in mid-October just a few weeks before its release.

The move paid off, as the movie garnered several Oscar nominations and tallied $94 million in domestic box office.

"But it's really hard to do that," Colligan said. "You sit there and all these emails are coming in about awards for other films or accolades for other actors and you think, Am I being too cute?"

Many also note that a high-profile slot can signal Oscar film in a way that puts it in the crosshairs of awards pundits. Last year, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" was in that position--after a big Toronto premiere, it received mixed reviews and was dismissed by some as a best-picture candidate. The movie went on to garner just $16 million in box office and comparatively little awards attention.

This year a number of movies are taking the plunge: Coming in established genres, "Rush," "Prisoners" and "Gravity" are all films that could have bypassed festivals in favor of a more conventional commercial release. But all are going for the higher risk/higher reward Toronto play.

Those movies are at least coming to  theaters just weeks after their festival debuts. But there are a scattered few who believe even a slow rollout is still possible.

Paul Haggis, the director of the 2006 Oscar winner "Crash," is attempting just that with a new film. After premiering in Toronto without distribution and staying out of theaters until the following spring, "Crash" went on to become a huge hit and take best picture. This year the director will premiere his film "Third Person," a romantic mystery that like "Crash" has triptych elements, without screening it first for distributors or even releasing a trailer, all in the hope the film can have a slow burn.

"I still believe you can build excitement over a long period of time by taking a movie to festivals," he said. "But it's kind of terrifying. The whole festival game is kind of terrifying."


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