Oscar hopefuls look to make splash in Toronto

Hilary Swank, Danny Boyle, Colin Firth debuting films

More Toronto coverage

TORONTO -- Like debutantes at a cotillion, movies that harbor Oscar hopes are about to be presented to the world at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival.

At first blush, many of them sport the kind of credentials that automatically get the attention of Academy voters: Danny Boyle, whose "Slumdog Millionaire" swept the Oscars in 2009 after winning the People's Choice Award in Toronto, is back with his newest film, "127 Hours"; double Oscar winner Hilary Swank will stake her claim for further consideration with the crusading legal drama "Conviction"; and Colin Firth, who was nominated last year for "A Single Man," is auditioning for back-to-back noms for his latest, "The King's Speech," in which he plays a stammering King George VI.

"Every movie is different," said Sony Pictures Classics co-head Michael Barker, who's shepherding nine films through the Toronto juggernaut. Some -- such as Mike Leigh's "Another Year," which offers a bravura performance by Lesley Manville as a tipsy lonely heart, and Charles Ferguson's documentary economics lesson "Inside Job" -- began building buzz at Cannes. In such cases, he said, Toronto "can add to the profile of a film."

Other SPC titles -- like Nigel Cole's "Made in Dagenham," about a 1968 strike at a Ford plant -- will be making the scene for the first time.

"It's perfect for a world-premiere audience because it's a very engaging film," Barker said of "Dagenham," forecasting lots of chatter for its star turns by Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson.

Still, while Toronto audiences are famously film-friendly -- tickets are made available to the general public, which almost always enthusiastically applauds the visiting cinema dignitaries -- the festival also can be treacherous. The concentration of press from around the world can create a deafening echo chamber that can kill an Oscar campaign before it even gets started. For every movie that has charmed moviegoers at this sprawling fest, there's another that slunk out of town after leaving viewers cold.

In 2006, for example, Steven Zaillian's adaptation of the Robert Penn Warren novel "All the King's Men" arrived with an impeccable pedigree: It was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and Sean Penn promised to deliver a barn-burner of a performance. But after the Toronto crowd delivered a collective thumbs-down, and general audiences stayed away after its release, the film quietly fell off the awards radar.

The same thing happened several years earlier to Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's critically lauded novel "The Human Stain," starring Anthony Hopkins. After finding no love in Toronto, the movie fell by the wayside.

This year, Fox Searchlight is fielding one of the most high-profile playbills: Along with "127 Hours" and "Conviction," its TIFF entries include Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go," an adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel that features rising young actors Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," which left audiences at the Venice International Film Festival -- where it had its world premiere -- chattering about Natalie Portman's portrait of a fiercely ambitious ballet dancer.

Whatever awards attention might await the respective films, Searchlight said that's not the primary reason for bringing them to Toronto.

"This may sound naive, but the decision to come to Toronto had less to do with awards and more about building buzz for four films that should get good audience reaction in a festival setting, and all have real playability in their different ways," said Michelle Hooper, Searchlight executive vp marketing. "If you don't feel you have the goods with a film, you wouldn't take it to the festival. It is taking a risk, but we think it's a risk that's worth it."

Certainly, when the kleig lights all align, a successful Toronto bow -- especially if it follows similarly upbeat reactions at either Venice or Telluride -- can boost a movie's visibility almost overnight.

Oscar handicappers already had included Tom Hooper's "Speech" on their lists simply because it looked as if it would fit into the niche of well-mannered costume dramas, but after it earned a standing ovation at Telluride, the Weinstein Co. release was immediately promoted to Oscar favorite and is looking to its Toronto screening to maintain that momentum.

During the next few days, critics also will be passing judgment on a number of films -- like Clint Eastwood's supernatural-tinged "Hereafter," starring Matt Damon, which Warners is readying for an Oct. 22 release after its makes a stop at the New York Film Festival -- that have been question marks.

But even after all the films screen and their relative awards merits are debated, there also will be the added suspense of whether those movies that are arriving without distribution will be picked up and released in time to make the 2010 race.

Robert Redford, for instance, will be taking the wraps off his period courtroom drama "The Conspirator," in which James McAvoy plays a lawyer reluctantly defending a woman (Robin Wright) who is accused of plotting to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Produced by the American Film Co., a new outfit launched by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts to make movies about historical subjects, the film couldn't be more timely because it deals with how the government can abuse the rights of individual citizens in times of crisis. But before anyone can assess its chances come awards time, it first must find a distribution home.
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