It may be 96 degrees outside here in Austin but the fall festival season has begun. Yesterday the Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF] announced their first 50+ films, films that will compete for spots at all the major fall festivals and for Oscars next March. This is year one of the new TIFF policy to restrict opening weekend films to ‘true premieres’ basically cutting Telluride, the other major 3rd Quarter festival, off at the legs. For years Telluride has staked its reputation on the way a majority of the films that ‘World Premiered’ or had their North American Premieres at TIFF had played at the New Mexico mountain town festival a few weeks prior, by way of a clever workaround. Because Telluride did not announce their full schedule until the first day of the festival, and restricted reviews, it was not considered a premiere. Therefore a film could unofficially premiere at the more intimate (and way more expensive) Telluride and then have its real World Premiere at TIFF right after. The T-Fest Two-Step has catapulted films like SLUM DOG MILLIONAIRE and ARGO into instant Oscar favorites. In 2013 alone, films to make both stops on the circuit included BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, GRAVITY, LABOR DAY, PRISONERS and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
Back in January, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey laid down the new law, that his festival would only play World or North American Premieres in the first four days of the festival. He told Indiewire “‘World premiere’ means the first public screening of the film anywhere in the world. ‘North American premiere’ means the first public screening anywhere in Canada, the United States or Mexico.” This effectively closes the loophole that Telluride has been exploiting, or at least it means that TIFF is no longer going to look the other way. I don’t blame him. Premieres are a big deal and TIFF has slowly and steadily become the most important festival in the world, at least for major studio releases, Oscar fodder, and world cinema. Honestly, they can do what they want and the rest of the world has to sort of go along with it. But their announcement this week has had a funny side effect. As films are listed as World, North American, or International Premiere, it’s going to become possible for the first time ever to know what Telluride is going to play (or not play).
Anthoine Fugua’s THE EQUALIZER? That’s a TIFF World Premiere, so it’s not playing Telluride. THE IMITATION GAME starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Enigma-Code-Breaking mathematician Alan Turing? It’s an International Premiere. And it’s listed as a UK/USA co-production. So that’s probably playing Telluride, and will probably not be playing TIFF on the opening weekend. A few of the films in the announcement have already played either Sundance (WHIPLASH) or Cannes (FOXCATCHER) so they are making Canadian Premieres. But there are something like 51 films on this list which are definitively not playing Telluride. Also not playing Telluride are the trio of films slated to World Premiere at New York: David Fincher’s GONE GIRL, Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE, and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s BIRDMAN. There are still a lot of great films that don’t have an announced premiere yet (Anton Corbijn’s LIFE, Werner Herzog’s QUEEN OF THE DESERT, Angelina Jolie‘s UNBROKEN, Stephen Daldry’s TRASH, and Tim Burton’s BIG EYES) but I suspect that when they are announced as Canadian or International Premieres at TIFF in the coming weeks, we’ll be able to put the Telluride schedule together a good 4-5 weeks before the festival, something never before possible. Will it still be a great festival? Of course. But a little of the mystery will be gone.
And how about the films that were announced? There are a lot of exciting possibilities on the schedule. A few of them will get releases in the US shortly after the fest, but many we will have to wait until the December awards season or even longer after to see. Back when I programmed for Austin Film Festival, snagging high profile TIFF films to play in Austin in October was a primary directive – not as much for me as for the other programmer (I was focused on the film competition and the indies and world premieres). However, because of this, it’s sort of impossible for me to look at these films without at least considering how they might play Austin in a festival setting, whether its AFF, Fantastic Fest, Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, or some idealized festival of my mind. With that in mind, here’s a ten highlights from TIFF first announcement that might just end up in Austin.
/Jason Reitman – Men, Women and Children follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways the internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives. Starring Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler and Judy Greer. – I’d bet the house on this one. I’m pretty sure if Reitman filmed his family trip to Delaware, AFF would play it – I’m also sure it would be great, because that’s who he is. Plus it was shot in Austin.
/Alan Rickman – A landscape gardener with a taste for the unconventional is invited to design one of the fountains at the Palace of Versailles. As she battles with the weather, the perilous rivalries at the court of Louis XIV and her own private demons, she finds herself drawn closer to the formality and enigma of the architect who hired her. Starring Kate Winslet, Stanley Tucci, Alan Rickman and Matthias Schoenaerts. – This film would be great in a classic theatre like the Paramount and would draw in that ‘coveted’ 45-65 and 65+ demographic that tends to stay away from film festivals and downtown. Plus it’ll have amazing costumes.
/Shim Sung-bo – The ragtag crew of a fishing boat takes on a dangerous commission to smuggle a group of illegal immigrants from China to Korea, in this tense high-seas adventure co-scripted by South Korean genre-movie guru Bong Joon-ho. Starring Kim Yoon-seok and Park Yoo- chun. – This sounds like a great Fantastic Fest possibility, right on the border of a genre pic and a serious world drama. It has already played a few fantasy festivals outside the US. I think the Fantastic Fest Fan would turn out for this and it would probably be a US Premiere. Actress Seo Yeong-hee took home their Best Actress Award in 2010.
/David Cronenberg – David Cronenberg forges both a wicked social satire and a very human ghost story from today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack and Robert Pattinson. – This is a sure fire good film and Fantastic Fest loves Cronenberg (they played an odd doc that had already played San Antonio possibly just because Cronenberg added his narration to it). Although I’d love to see AFF get this one and give Cronenberg their Excellence in Film (i.e. Directing) Award, which has not yet been announced. He’s certainly deserving.
/Ed Zwick – In this remarkable true story set in the height of the Cold War, chess legend Bobby Fischer is locked in a gripping championship clash with the Soviets as he struggles against his own psychological demons while the whole world anxiously awaits the outcome. Starring Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard and Liev Schreiber. – This is the film in the line up I am most excited about – I directed the Musical CHESS in grad school, and have been obsessed with these real life events since I castled my first pieces. Not sure if Zwick has been to AFF before but he would be another great Excellence in Filmmaking Award. But I wouldn’t count out Fantastic Fest to just snatch this one for no good genre reason, based on its genre-star cast and the popularity of Chess in this town (think Bujalski).
/Jean-Baptiste Leonetti — Ben, a young man who works as a hunting guide, gets a job of a lifetime when he is hired by Madec, a wealthy businessman from Los Angeles, to hunt a bighorn sheep. Their excursion in the Southwestern desert quickly goes from bad to worse when overly-eager Madec gets trigger happy, accidentally killing an old prospector. He attempts to bribe Ben for his secrecy, but Ben staunchly refuses. Outraged, Madec turns on Ben, determined to eliminate the only witness to his crime. Trapped in a sadistic cat-and-mouse game, Ben has to rely on his basic survival skills to make it out alive. Starring Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irvine, Hannah Mangan, Lawrence and Ronny Cox. – This sounds like a great Michael Douglas star vehicle and a nice selection for Fantastic Fest. Not getting the fantastic vibe from these announcements? Wait til TIFF announces their Midnight Madness picks – many of which will appeal to the Drafthouse crowd. But THE REACH feels a bit like a bigger budget BLUE RUIN (at least in mood) which played Fantastic last year before being picked up by Drafthouse Films.
/Barry Levinson – The Humbling tells the story of a legendary stage actor who has an affair with a lesbian woman half his age at a secluded country house in Connecticut. Based on Philip Roth’s final novel, it is a tragic comedy about a man who has lived inside his own imagination for too long. Starring Al Pacino, Mandy Patinkin, Dianne Wiest and Greta Gerwig. – Levinson is a former AFF Awardee and I’m sure this would be a great opportunity to bring him back. Also Roth is a writer’s writer and they love adaptations. Can’t imagine SXSW-fav Gerwig on an AFF stage and Pacino would be a pretty hard get (although Susan Sarandon was last year’s Acting Awardee, the only other one was Johnny Depp). Maybe Charles Grodin? Maybe I just think it would an amazing ball of controversy to play a film from someone who just quit the WGA after 40 years at an event sponsored by both the WGA East and WGA West. Yeah, more and more this is sounding like a no-go but that’s too bad – b/c it looks amazing. Maybe Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival can swing for the fences and land this one.
/Richard LaGravenese – In this adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, The Last Five Years is a musical deconstruction of a love affair and a marriage taking place over a five year period. Jamie, a young, talented up-and-coming Jewish novelist falls in love with Cathy, a Shiksa Goddess and struggling actress. The film, told almost entirely through song and a beautiful pop music score, portrays an honest, heartbreaking, often funny, exploration of love and its consequences on individual identity. Starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. – This is another one that looks a lot more obvious than it is. LaGravenese is another past AFF awardee but they’ve never been too keen on musicals over there … or maybe I’m just saying that so they’ll prove me wrong. What a wonderful Catch-22. Kendrick would certainly fill the Paramount. You could also do a 1-2 punch with Angelina Jolie’s UNBROKEN which LaGravenese also wrote. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if this holds off, plays Sundance then SXSW and makes a spring debut on the US screen.
/James Marsh – The extraordinary true story of one of the world’s greatest living minds, Stephen Hawking, who falls deeply in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde. Hawking receives an earth-shattering diagnosis at age 21. Together, Stephen and Jane defy impossible odds, breaking new ground in medicine and science. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis and Emily Watson. – This is another AFF style film but probably not one that would have any talent coming in with it. Still, this would be a good draw in Austin, location of one of the premiere research universities in the country. Marsh’s SHADOW DANCER played AFF in 2012.
Toa Fraser – Hongi, a Maori chieftain’s teenage son, must avenge his father’s murder in order to bring peace and honour to the souls of his loved ones after his tribe is slaughtered through an act of treachery. Vastly outnumbered by a band of villains led by Wirepa, Hongi’s only hope is to pass through the feared and forbidden “Dead Lands” and forge an uneasy alliance with a mysterious warrior, a ruthless fighter who has ruled the area for years. Starring Xavier Horan, Raukura Turei, Rena Owen, James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare and Te Kohe Tuhaka. – Another world cinema entry that looks fierce enough to please the Fantastic Fest crowd. These are the kind of films that don’t need a star to win over an audience and if the director is over here for TIFF (of course he will be, he was last year for GISELLE) it would be easy for him to come on down to Austin the next week for a US premiere.
And then there is WHIPLASH, one of my favorites from Sundance, which will get its US theatrical release on October 10th. Don’t miss it. The Farmer’s Insurance guy totally picks on that drunk from THE SPECTACULAR NOW.