Looking for the next big 'dog'

Studios jockey for place at the top of the buzz list

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Nobody could have expected the runaway success of "Slumdog Millionaire."

Yet when it comes to festival handicapping, no fest gets chewed over by as many prediction-happy pundits as Toronto, a launching platform for so many fall hits (and a few flops). And this year's consensus is that there's no "Slumdog," no film that's going to blaze a trail from the fall festival into the pop-cultural consciousness.

"On paper, there isn't a movie at the festival that everyone's talking about as a big fall hit or awards contender, at least not yet," one studio exec said.

That could be a function of the smaller number of films slated for release this fall, or the natural cycle of buzz. Then again, that thought came from an interview conducted before "Up in the Air" premiered to warm reviews at Telluride. Jason Reitman's follow-up to "Juno," which has already been earning raves for George Clooney's frequent-flying Ryan Bingham, could well turn into a breakout for studio Paramount after it premieres in Toronto.

Not that studios won't be trying to replicate the pattern of "Slumdog," which can credit a raucous screening on the fest's Sunday night as one of the first steps in its improbable run last year. Focus Features, which launched the Coen Bros. "Burn After Reading" at Toronto last year, is going back to the well with the auteurs, unveiling semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale "A Serious Man."

Meanwhile, the "Burn After Reading" slot -- that of an auteur auteur attempting lighter fare -- will be occupied this year by Steven Soderbergh and Warners, who are bringing the Matt Damon-toplined intelligence spoof "The Informant!" to the fest. "Reading" would be a worthy standard for the studio -- that pic earned $155 million worldwide.

Awards campaigns for individual performances will also be a priority for some companies. After launching Anne Hathaway's awards-season bid in "Rachel Getting Married" last year, Sony Pictures Classics will seek to do the same for Carey Mulligan in the romantic dramedy "An Education" this year. The studio is unveiling about a half dozen pics at the fest, including Michael Sheen soccer pic "The Damned United" and Palme d'Or winner "The White Ribbon." Lionsgate will also attempt the same for several actors with its awards hopeful "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire."

And there's always the possibility of a studio buying a movie without distribution and turning around to build a quick awards campaign, as Fox Searchlight did with "The Wrestler" last year. Companies will be on the lookout for candidates in Tom Ford's "A Single Man," Neil Jordan's "Ondine" and Todd Solondz's "Life during Wartime," while below-the-radar titles like the Michael Caine thriller "Harry Brown" and animated pic "My Dog Tulip" are also seen as hidden gems.

But there's more at stake than Oscar gold at Toronto. Nearly a half dozen pictures from the past few years went on to earn at least $200 million worldwide after their debut in Toronto, including broad comedies like "Borat." "Every blogger wants to talk about Toronto and the Academy Awards, but that's more like frosting on the cake," SPC's Michael Barker says. "There's work done there that's important to launching a picture on so many levels."

And Toronto, after becoming an awards platform when the Oscar calendar shortened six years ago, is morphing subtly again. Two years ago many of the pictures -- particularly political dramas like "Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah" -- underperformed after debuting in Toronto. So last year studios pushed less serious fare, and the festival welcome a lot of comedies and dramedies.

This year continues the trend. Like last year, many of the big awards-seaosn dramas are staying out of the Toronto fray, including Clint Eastwood's "Invictus," Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" and Mira Nair's "Amelia."

Instead, many of the high-profile studio premieres at the fest are either comedies or contain a comedic element, a list that includes not only "Education" and "Informant!" but Drew Barrymore roller-derby comedy "Whip It" and Ricky Gervais' directorial debut "The Invention of Lying."

Clooney will actually go for a dramedy double-whammy: in addition to "Air," he unveils "The Men Who Stare at Goats," the project Overture picked up out of Cannes that drew strong reviews at Venice. It's a sharp contrast to two years ago, when he came for his dark drama "Michael Clayton."

And genre pics like Lionsgate's unconventional vampire pic "Daybreakers" round out the less serious, more commercial slate.

Meanwhile, some companies are hoping the fest will give them a general news bump. Overture, which is seeking a broad boxoffice hit after several specialized breakouts, is hoping to make hay with Michael Moore's economic screed "Capitalism: A Love Story."

The provocateur filmmaker is a fan favorite at Toronto -- festgoers packed the Elgin theater to see him sneak footage of "Sicko" when he last promoted a film at the festival three years ago -- and "Capitalism" has already drawn strong blog reactions.

But Moore's pic is at the moment overshadowed by political controversy over fest organizers' decision to choose Tel Aviv as the inaugural spotlight for its City by City sidebar. A press conference from the protest organizers scheduled for Friday is sure to add more fuel to the fire. "The nice thing about Toronto,' said one film-fest veteran, "is there's always going to be heat, but you kind of never know where it's going to come from."
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