This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The sprawling Toronto Film Festival always offers an embarrassment of riches -- the 10-day event, which concluded Sept. 15, screened 288 features -- but this year, an unusually strong lineup made the competition to grab the limelight more intense. As a result, some Toronto veterans wonder whether the platform that launched Argo to a best picture Oscar last year is as great as once thought.
"A lot of air gets sucked out of the room as each success drafts off the previous success," says one publicist who was juggling multiple titles. Consider Saturday night during the festival, thought of as a prime spot for distributors seeking to make a splash. Jason Reitman's Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet, had its official world premiere at 6 p.m. At the same time, a few blocks away, the world premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba in the title role, was screening, while at another theater, moviegoers were lining up to catch Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.
Adding to the overload, Fox Searchlight was throwing a party for its four-film slate that attracted 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender and Enough Said's Julia Louis-Dreyfus, while Sony Pictures Classics was hosting a dinner for filmmakers Ralph Fiennes (The Invisible Woman) and Asghar Farhadi (The Past).
With so many films hoping to replicate the Argo strategy, titles risked getting lost in the crowd. That happened to the opening-night film, Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Julian Assange. Once it bowed to mixed notices, the Oscar bloggers, desperate to proclaim the next big awards contender, quickly moved on, although DreamWorks execs say they accomplished their goal of setting up the movie, which opens Oct. 18, as an entertaining adult thriller. By contrast, Sony chose to hold its awards contender Captain Phillips for the New York Film Festival, where it will have a round of free attention all to itself.
Several films managed to rise above the fray, none more so than Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave from Fox Searchlight and New Regency. Following its Telluride debut, the film further wowed critics and, despite its unflinching look at slavery, won over Toronto moviegoers, who voted it the fest's People's Choice Award. "We know it's a serious, artistic movie," says Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley. "But the audience award was particularly meaningful. … It showed it can reach a wider audience and break out of the art house box."
In addition to staking a claim on awards consideration, the studios that benefited most from Toronto were those whose movies are set for release in the coming weeks. Universal revved up Ron Howard's Rush, opening Sept. 27, while Warner Bros. spread the word about Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, coming Sept. 20, and Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, which blasts off Oct. 4.
While a typical studio press junket costs about $250,000, taking advantage of the press that's already in Toronto can be cost-effective. The fest itself provides the theaters; in some cases, studios split costs; and actors like The Fifth Estate's Daniel Bruhl, who also appears in Rush, are available to talk up films back-to-back.
But will the Toronto spotlight extend to movies coming later this year? Labor Day, for example, doesn't hit theaters until Dec. 25, but Paramount says it was able to complete press that will be held until the movie's release -- when Winslet, who is pregnant, won't be available.
Similarly, Searchlight used Toronto to help pave the way for 2014 releases like its costume drama Belle. Says Utley, "It helps us grow good word-of-mouth and work on social media, and the early screening got us some good reviews, which we'll be able to put in trailers along with the festival imprimatur."