Toronto film fest lacking Oscar sheen

No front-runner films yet at the midway point

TORONTO -- This year, Oscar didn't come to Toronto.

Since the Academy Awards calendar was shortened in 2003, the fall film festival has typically served to separate contenders from pretenders.

In the past several years, it vaulted the Oscar hopes of "Last King of Scotland" star Forest Whitaker and best picture candidates like "Atonement" and eventual best picture winner "No Country for Old Men" while sinking the ambitions of hopefuls like "All the King's Men."

But this year the festival has brought little into focus. "I haven't seen such an Oscar-less Toronto in a long time," one exec said. "The festival is more than half over, and you still have no idea who the Oscar front-runners are."

Instead of giving films an awards bounce, Toronto has served mainly to boost the commercial prospects of such entertainments as "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," "Burn After Reading" and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno."

The cutback in the number of specialty films overall is partly to blame for why so few films have jumped to the front of the awards line.

Another factor: Many studios held back films from the festival either for strategic reasons or because they simply weren't ready. Such potential award winners as "Milk," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Changeling" and "Australia" did not make the pilgrimage here.

Just as striking is the fact that films that are here are failing to gain traction. Some hopefuls, such as "The Duchess" and "The Burning Plain," earned moderately favorable response but little talk of a breakout.

And titles that stalled at May's Festival de Cannes -- such as "Che," "Blindness" and "Synecdoche, N.Y." -- did little to revive their fortunes.

Some films that have received buzz -- like "Lovely, Still," which has drawn attention for Martin Landau's performance -- don't have distribution yet, leaving any awards rollout in doubt.

Sometimes the lack of awards titles is just a matter of chance. Said awards publicity expert Tony Angellotti, "Oscar films can't always be calendar- or festival-specific."

Fest organizers stress that even with Toronto's recent reputation as an awards kingmaker, that's hardly the event's primary purpose. "If we can launch an Oscar campaign that's great, but it's not our defining criterion," fest co-director Cameron Bailey said.

But the festival might have helped clarify at least one category: the best actress race. The beneficiaries have been Anne Hathaway in Jonathan Demme's dysfunctional-family drama "Rachel Getting Married"; Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky," the Mike Leigh film about a chipper young schoolteacher; and, if Searchlight chooses to make an awards push for her, "The Secret Life of Bees" star Dakota Fanning.

The lone film that has emerged as a genuine standout is Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," which went in as a question mark and will leave as a contender in pretty much every major awards category. To a lesser extent, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" also is generating awards talk, though its cast is entirely unknown.

The lack of Toronto awards breakouts could be highlighting a truth about this year's race. "It may well mean that more of the nominees will be studio films," the Film Department topper Mark Gill said. "It might be telling us is that this year might not be as strong for indies as last year."

In acquisition news Tuesday, a deal was close on Endgame Entertainment's "A Chorus Line" documentary "Every Little Step," with three distributors said to be in the mix. Buyers also continued to circle the Kathryn Bigelow action film "The Hurt Locker," with Summit among those who appeared interested.

Gregg Goldstein in New York contributed to this report.