Toronto Film Festival

The event is ramping up efforts to ensure that smaller pictures don't get lost in the shuffle.

TORONTO -- Ask Giulia Filippelli, senior international adviser at the Toronto International Film Festival's sales office, to explain how your average buyer or seller should go about getting business done amid the festival's usual swirl of star-driven Hollywood premieres and parties, and she'll tell you to pay close attention to the lounges.

In an effort to keep the little guy afloat in an increasingly crowded sea of Tinseltown types, Toronto organizers have gone out of their way this year to create a more relaxed environment, setting up lounges to facilitate business among the festival's myriad small- to medium-sized buyers and sellers.

"When you become successful and powerful, it's easier to attract buyers and sales agents," Filippelli says. "But that doesn't mean that people coming to the festival are working easily around the films and programs and the business that could be done."

Given Toronto's increasing status as the de facto start of awards season, Hollywood's presence has dialed up the star power during recent years. Amid the red-carpet hoopla and gala premieres that surround budding Oscar hopefuls, though, the art house fare and world cinema that comprise the bulk of the fest's lineup need help to stay above the fray -- and organizers hope the lounges will provide just that.

New this year is the Sales and Industry Parkette, a tented and fenced area adjacent to Alliance Atlantis' Cumberland 4 Cinemas in Yorkville that will serve as an unofficial meeting place for industry pass-holders taking a breather between screenings. There's also the Terrace just north of the Sutton Place Hotel, which offers classy couches for casual kibitzing or tables and chairs for formal business meetings. In addition, the festival's sales office will occupy the hotel's entire first floor, filling two ballrooms and the news conference room.

Wayne Clarkson, executive director of government film financier Telefilm Canada, believes that new forums are needed as the TIFF grows in size and profile, and Canadian filmmakers in particular need support as they seek financing and collaborators.

"It has gotten tougher," he says. "The festival is bigger and more crowded, and the obstacles have increased -- but if you make that phone call or get someone's e-mail (address), you've made a contact."

Even oft-ignored documentary buyers and sellers can mingle and make deals at the new Parkette-adjacent Doc Bar, while Queer Lounge, which launched during the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, will descend on Toronto from Sept. 9-11 to build an audience for gay-themed films. The latter's home base will be -- believe it or not -- the Church of the Redeemer, also in Yorkville.

Elsewhere, Telefilm Canada is bringing back the Indie Film Lounge, a three-day event that brings Canadian and foreign directors, distributors, programrs, producers and writers together for networking. The organization also is sponsoring the inaugural International Finance Forum, a one-day conference that aims to promote official co-productions between Canadian and foreign movie producers.

"Toronto has evolved into a very important stop on the market trail, and major sales companies have offices in the suites of the major hotels and are conducting themselves as they would at (the Festival de Cannes) or Sundance," says Brad Pelman, co-president of Toronto-based independent movie distributor Maple Pictures.

Pelman believes that smaller films sometimes face an uphill battle at Toronto because major U.S. and European buyers arrive with military-style battle plans, aware of the films screening and which should be tracked and potentially purchased. "The sales office is a great place where you can meet casually," he says. "But ourselves and others set the important meetings up well before the festival begins."

Even as the festival attempts to implement more order, though, Filippelli emphasizes that Toronto still aims to be an "informal, flexible, low-cost environment" for buyers and sales agents. She is banking on industry executives avoiding the high cost of assembling and manning sales booths -- a standard practice at the Festival de Cannes -- in order to do business at informal meeting places.

Toronto organizers also are offering new national-film-agency promotion desks, promotional billboards for its lineup, additional video viewing stations and mailbox services.

Even with the improved services, Peter Carlton, senior commissioning executive at FilmFour, the movie arm of British TV broadcaster Channel 4, says doing business in Toronto reminds him of shooting a film in a foreign nation. "You need a local fixer, someone who knows the terrain," says Carlton, who has four movies booked for the Toronto lineup.

His guides this year include Miramax, which holds U.S. distribution rights to FilmFour's Peter O'Toole starrer "Venus," set for domestic release in December, and Fox Searchlight, which is set to open FilmFour's "The Last King of Scotland" stateside Sept. 27.

Carlton would not relish bringing a large picture to Toronto without a U.S. distributor and publicist onboard. "It's a real lottery, and you can be lost very easily," he says of the festival's star-driven hustle.

Similarly, SenArt Films' Robert May has a useful Toronto guide in Cinetic Media's John Sloss. May hopes a gala world premiere will lead to a U.S. distribution deal for Christopher N. Rowley's directorial debut "Bonneville," which follows three middle-aged women on a road trip. "We look at Toronto as a great festival and a great market for films," he says. "Toronto has a great history for films that are sold there and go off and please audiences around the world."

Adds rookie film financier Sean Wolfington, who snagged a prized Saturday slot in Toronto for "Bella," Alejandro Gomez Monteverde's directorial debut about two lives converging in New York: "Toronto is the best place for a film like this. Audiences love the film, and Toronto is an audience-oriented festival."

Wolfington is lucky to have ICM agent Sarah Lash show him the way in Toronto. A 10-year veteran of the event, Lash says "Bella" will benefit from the festival agreeing to screen it for the public before doing so for media and industry audiences. Lash marvels at the enthusiastic support of local cinephiles who research the festival lineup exhaustively before making their choices.

"I'm always amazed to see the lines of festivalgoers snake around the corner and people standing by to see perhaps their fourth film of the day," she says.

Still, simply landing a plum screening venue is not enough to ensure valuable exposure beyond local film buffs. Securing the media spotlight in Toronto remains a challenge given the festival's continuing lurch toward Hollywood. Renate Rose, the Hamburg-based managing director of European Film Promotion, says that because the U.S. media in Toronto are predisposed to cover Hollywood stars and directors backed by the "superpromotion" of studios and major American distributors, her organization has begun to help producers and sales agents accompany and promote their films in Toronto, with an eye toward landing North American distribution.

"If the (European) film is not sold, the local press won't write about it, and we won't get any space," Rose says. Conversely, inking a North American distribution deal in Toronto paves the way for media interest in a film in advance of its commercial release.

But the glitz and glamour that have frustrated purists in the past don't seem to be dampening the spirits of some event newcomers. Toronto-based screenwriter Megan Martin is attempting to temper her expectations before her quirky directorial debut, the short "Ninth Street Chronicles," bows at the festival. "Realistically, there will be two or three features that will blow people away in Toronto, and I'll be sitting in the dark and watching them," she says. "But I'm not expecting that for my film. Instead, I will watch three different audiences watching my film, and I'm going to see it projected on the big screen."

Adds U.S. director Macky Alston, who is bringing his third documentary, "The Killer Within," to Toronto for its world premiere, "I'm thrilled, having heard from friends and colleagues that Toronto is the festival that they most enjoy."

There also is excitement from Jill Schneider, executive producer
of Showtime's original movie "Shame," Mohammed Naqvi's unflinching portrait of a Pakistani woman who dares to break her silence after being gang-raped during a village dispute. "We're still coming down from getting into Toronto," she says. "Maybe this is what it feels like after you get engaged."

Such enthusiasm is appreciated by Filippelli, who is adamant that her team focus on supporting movies within the festival's 300-film lineup that easily could get lost amid the clutter.

"I want to help equally the mini-majors as well as the small distributor from Paraguay or Argentina that comes to find a hidden gem -- and could become the big hit of their career," Filippelli says.