Commentary: Stars bringing unlikely audiences at Toronto

Zac Efron and Jessica Biel broaden interest in 'Welles,' 'Virtue'

Walking down Bloor Street in the early days of the Toronto International Film Festival, it was not uncommon to be stopped by groups of teenage girls asking whether you had seen -- or perhaps, blessing of blessings, knew the whereabouts of -- one Zac Efron, in town to support the premiere of his as-yet-unsold movie "Me and Orson Welles."

Some didn't even mention Efron by name, as though to do so would be to jinx the whole quest. They just held up celebrity magazines that carried his picture and asked "Do you know where he is?" with the dead-serious inquisitiveness of a P.I. trying to locate a missing suspect. When the answer came back no, the teenagers would say they remained hopeful because they'd scored tickets to the premiere. At least they'd get to see the Golden One from a distance.

Few stories, it would seem, would illustrate so well how the power of celebrity can broaden an audience. "Orson Welles," a theater-themed, banter-filled dramedy set in the 1930s world of New York intellectuals, typically would not be considered a preferred way for teenage girls to spend a Friday night. But put the "High School Musical" heartthrob in the film, and suddenly its premiere is the Beatles coming to America.

Efron's presence was one of several star crossovers at Toronto. One of the festival's biggest conversation pieces was "Easy Virtue," a British comedy of manners set just after World War I. It's a pleasant, verbally dexterous movie starring Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas and ... Jessica Biel? The actress who made her name on WB Network's "7th Heaven" -- and whose recent media citations have included FHM's "100 Sexiest Women" and VH1's "100 Hottest Hotties" -- does her best Rosalind Russell slinking around an estate that's clinging desperately to fading Victorian standards.

Biel didn't inspire Efron's squealing hordes. But her unlikely turn clearly is meant to attract a young male audience more likely to see "The House Bunny" than an update of a Noel Coward play.

Even documentaries got in on the act. A screening of Adria Petty's "Paris, Not France" was filled with packs of teenagers giggling through the exploration of and apologia for the partying ways of Paris Hilton. The Chihuahua-holding one herself was there, too, and her decision to remain silent in her seat did nothing to discourage the three-deep rows of citizen paparazzi flashing their cell-phone cameras.

Of course, Hollywood is based on reinvention, and celebs have the historical precedent to seek out these film roles. And younger stars are in a particularly tough spot: They want to push their career forward with more complex roles but must do so in a world where "Access Hollywood" and OK! Magazine are working harder than ever to define their off-screen personas.

The problem, though, is that these performances didn't work. Never mind that Efron and Biel were the weak links among their respective casts (Scott Thomas runs circles around Biel, and the Welles character, played by Christian McKay, was that movie's true discovery). The real issue is that their presence actually distracted from the film. A teen idol like Efron might hope to change our perception of him by sinking into a challenging role. But the effect on moviegoers is the opposite: It only reminds us that the character we're watching is not the stage ingenue of the film's fictional world but the star of "HSM."

On one level, producers are savvy to build movies around these high-appeal personalities. Prospective buyers on these films -- all of which had U.S. rights for sale -- turned out in greater numbers because of the indie world's ever-increasing if still largely unverified belief in the importance of a marquee star.

But the strategy also might backfire. In fact, the presence of these stars might actually be part of the reason neither of those movies had sold by the close of the festival; their presence either set buyer expectations or seller prices too high -- or, perhaps, simply dragged the movies down.

And there's little evidence so far that when the films are released, the stars will be a driving force at the boxoffice; after all, the teenagers who turned out came to see the star, not the movie.

Producers will continue to try to cast names that will bring in moviegoers and buyers. But if their gambit doesn't work, they'll likely be scouring for reasons -- and might find themselves coming as empty as the groupies searching for Zac Efron.