Midnight Madness creates effective buzz


As Friday night morphed into Saturday morning at the Toronto International Film Festival, buyers and agents -- along with a raucous throng of regular moviegoers -- crowded into the Ryerson Theater for the 11:59 p.m. screening of James Gunn's "Super."

Although through midday Saturday no deal was in place, "Super," starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, was being buzzed about as one of the fest's hot acquisition titles.

Welcome to the world of Midnight Madness, TIFF's witching-hour sidebar. It may not have quite the glamor of the evening red-carpet galas at Roy Thomson Hall, but with Hollywood hungering for genre movies, Midnight has become a hot ticket, the place to sample everything from from horror pics to Asian actioners to black comedies. And that's keeping buyers up past their bedtimes to make sure they don't miss out on the next genre break-out like "Paranormal Activity" or even "The Last Exorcism."

This year's Midnight lineup at TIFF has stirred up even more interest than usual since it's full of titles looking for distribution. Distributors who have weathered the indie shakeout of the last few years are looking for sure things, and genre movies with targeted audiences are increasingly seen as one of the few, relatively safe bets.

"From a marketing perspective, a lot of the most interesting stuff is coming out of Midnight Madness, in all genres -- not just limited to the horror genre," said one acquisitions exec.

A kind of anti-super hero movie, "Super" stars Wilson as an abandoned husband who picks up a crowbar and turns himself into the Crimson Bolt. "James Gunn's SUPER is the film 'Kick-Ass' tried so hard to be. Crazily funny, violent, profane. An off-the-hook Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page," one fan tweeted shortly after the midnight screening ended.

And while the deal-making has been more and more a simmer than a boil during TIFF's first weekend, "Super" rose to the top of the list of films that are expected to close a sale.

Keith Calder, one of the producers of Guy Moshe's noir-Western-martial art flick "Bunraku," which had the plumb Saturday midnight slot, was geared up for action, having already successfully navigated the sidebar before.

He was also a producer of "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," a horror movie which starred Amber Heard that played the Midnight program in 2006.

"Midnight Madness is one of the most successfully branded branch of any film festival," he said to THR on Saturday.

Calder remembered being taken out of the theater by his agents during the Q&A that followed "Lane's" screening to field offers for the movie, quickly concluding a deal in a back alley with Harvey Weinstein.

Calder said that those heady days of instant sales -- Eli Roth's Midnight premiere of "Cabin Fever" also enjoyed an overnight sale in 2002 -- are over. But, he said, "I don't think it's vital to make a sale happen right away."

Still, Midnight is an ideal showcase for a film just coming on the market because of its particular audience.

"It's the closest you can get to a multiplex audience at a film festival," Calder said.

The Midnight crowd, which lines up for hours ahead of time, is passionate and looking for fun. They bring with them no high-art pretensions and so provide buyers with a great litmus test for how a movie might play on an average Saturday night.

According to the program's director Colin Geddes, the audience can be described as early adopters and taste-makers, and comparisons to the Comic-Con crowd are not that far off the mark.

"No one shows up in costume, but these guys are the ones who see things early, and will be the cool kids on the block," Geddes said.

"They are blog-oriented and you can get great buzz," a veteran sales exec agreed. ""When the ultimate distribution of a film depends on your ability to capture the imagination of fanboys, the best idea is to present it to that audience. You're guaranteed an informed reaction."

The Midnight crowd is geared up to discover new takes on familiar genres and to welcome new talent taking chances, and the sidebar has returned the favor by being the first to show North American audiences work from filmmakers ranging from Peter Jackson to Takashi Miike to Roth.

This year, nine of the 10 offerings are world premieres.

Friday night, the hometown Canadian audience cheered the antics of Michael Dowse's "Fubar II," set amid the oil fields of Alberta.

Still to come are such titles as Brad Anderson's black-out tale "Vanishing on 7th Street," starring Hayden Christensen; "John Carpenter's "The Ward," the director's first movie in nine years; James Wan's ghostly "Insidious"; Julien Carbon and Laurence Courtiard's French thriller "Red Nights"; and Dao Jian Xiao's martial arts revenge movie "The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman."

"I usually try to anchor it with something big but this year the best films I saw were independents," Gedded said. "I passed on some studio fare. because it didn't break new ground. I didn't want to waste the audience's time."
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