TIFF's Madness now mainstream

Section has become a place where filmmakers want to be

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TORONTO -- This may be the year the Toronto International Film Festival succumbs to the madness.

Once a marginalized sidebar, the fest's Midnight Madness section, featuring screenings of genre movies and, occasionally, comedies, is more in the spotlight than ever.

Fox's "Jennifer's Body," the horror comedy written by Diablo Cody and starring Megan Fox, kicked off the series Thursday night. "Daybreakers," which Lionsgate doesn't open until January, plays tonight.

Other selections include "Survival of the Dead" from George A. Romero, "Bitch Slap!" "Ong Bak 2: The Beginning" and "Rec 2," the sequel to the Spanish horror movie that was remade in 2008 as "Quarantine."

"This year is a turning point," said Colin Geddes, TIFF's international programmer and the overseer of Midnight Madness.

Madness began in 1988 as a way to lure younger audiences. But over time, the types of films and the genres it features have become more a part of popular culture -- the Comic-Con effect, if you will.

"It's a case of the marginalized films becoming more and more mainstream," Geddes said.

Two incidents helped propel the growth of the series.

Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever" caused a bidding war in 2002, ending up as the highest sale at that year's fest.

And when "Borat" screened at midnight on the fest's opening Thursday in 2006, it turned into a news event.

Star Sacha Baron Cohen arrived at the premiere on a plow pulled by several oxen -- at a time when such premiere stunts were not yet common. And then the projector in the Ryerson Theater went out about a half-hour into the screening. Michael Moore, who was in attendance, tried to enter the projection booth to fix the machine, and then, he, director Larry Charles and Cohen (in character as Borat) came on stage and riffed for more than an hour.

The movie was shown in its entirety several days later, but the spontaneous midnight comedy session became the talk of the fest and helped spur "Borat" to $260 million in global boxoffice.

For its part, Lionsgate wanted to launch "Daybreakers" at TIFF in part to get the word out that its vampire film is decidedly different from this fall's other vamp offerings such as "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," with its lovelorn teens, and the CW's new "The Vampire Diaries."

(The directors behind "Daybreakers" also wanted to appear under the Madness umbrella since their premiere of "Undead" in 2003 marked the last screening of a movie at the now-torn down Uptown Theater.)

While the midnight screenings are not always a priority for buyers -- acquisitions execs at fests tend to come from specialty divisions more than genre labels -- they are increasingly landing on execs' radars.

One of the hot titles on many lists this year is Romero's zombie pic.

"Survival of the Dead," which played in Venice on Wednesday, is seen as a return to the kind of pure genre filmmaking for which there's a built-in audience, and it may prompt more than a few acquisitions execs to stay up past their bedtimes to watch the film with an audience.

Filmmakers love the midnight showings partly because the crowds lining up to get in are zealous moviegoers who are not afraid to show how they feel about a film.

And fest organizers are eager to court their enthusiasm, even if it means deviating a bit from Toronto's reputation as a prestige fest.

"We're not trying to be the six o'clock film and we don't have the chi-chi parties," said "Body" producer Dan Dubiecki, who is also in Toronto with "Up In the Air" and "Chloe." "Midnight Madness is the party. It's the party for the die-hard fans."

And while the pics tend to run along genre lines, they appeal to a young male audience in other ways.

"Body" for instance, features the pin-up du jour Megan Fox in a youth-skewing comedy.

"It's definitely a genre hybrid," director Karyn Kusama said of her pic. "I wanted to walk a tightrope between comedy and genuine horror."

Another sign of the series' popularity: It now has an audience award. This year marks the inaugural Midnight Madness Cadillac People's Choice Award.

Geddes admitted that more and more studios are approaching him with their wares but says it's too early to tell where the series will end up. He has only one goal in mind.

"This is first and foremost about fun," he said.