Films big and small head to Toronto festival in search of buzz
Known for crowd-pleasing, commercial Hollywood comedies, Seth Rogen has never been to the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. This week, though, America's stoner-in-chief will be heading to the cinematic gathering in his native Canada and rubbing elbows with Oscar mainstays like George Clooney and Brad Pitt to promote “50/50,” a buddy film he produced and stars in about a young man who's diagnosed with cancer.
If Rogen's first Toronto appearance is evidence of the actor's movement toward somewhat more mature fare, it is also testament to the festival's unique role as a critical platform for introducing somewhat challenging or genre-busting films to a wide, mainstream audience heading into the busy fall movie season.
Although it comes right on the heels of film festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Venice, Italy, Toronto — which kicks off Thursday — is much bigger both in terms of the number of films (about 300) and the media exposure. Reaction from the press, and the public, during the 11-day event goes a long way toward determining many movies' fate in terms of commercial success and critical recognition.
Last year, for instance, “The King's Speech” and “Black Swan” received important boosts at the festival, helping both to achieve Oscar and box-office glory.
“50/50,” which premieres Monday at Toronto and which Summit Entertainment will open in U.S. theaters on Sept. 30, is based on the story of Rogen's friend Will Reiser, who wrote the script. The movie stars Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but Rogen's description of the film in an interview — “a buddy comedy about some young dude who has cancer” — explains perfectly why it needs the good buzz of a festival to have a shot at the box office.
“Will got sick six years ago and initially we started talking about making some kind of movie about it,” Rogen said. “But at that point we didn't have any context on it. It wasn't until he got better that we could see it was a story.”
Of course, veterans like Clooney and Pitt will be at the glitzy festival too. Clooney stars in two films showing at Toronto, the dramatic comedy “The Descendants” and the political drama “The Ides of March” (which he also directed). Pitt takes the wraps off “Moneyball,” the featurized version of Michael Lewis' book about Oakland A's general manager Bill Beane.
Good buzz at Toronto, though, isn't a sure sign of Oscar success. Two years ago, Jason Reitman's “Up in the Air” rode out of town as the unquestionable best-picture favorite but was eventually shut out at the Academy Awards.
Many films that come to Toronto require a more nuanced sell than what can be achieved with a 30-second television commercial. That's the case with “Moneyball.” Despite a predominantly male cast and a plot set in the world of baseball scouting and statistics, the studio is trying aggressively to market the film to women and non-baseball fans.
There are many other such films with big names attached that are looking to break out, including David Cronenberg's “A Dangerous Method,” about the lives of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as well as Madonna's time-jumping romance, “W.E.” Then there are dozens of below-the-radar movies looking to connect, including a feel-good youth-ballet documentary called “First Position” and a horror film inflected with Cuban politics, “Juan of the Dead.”
The festival — now in its 36th year — entered a new era in 2010 as it moved most of its events and screenings from the city's Yorkville neighborhood to downtown and opened a splashy, expensive new headquarters called Bell Lightbox.
No such grand change is planned this year, though the festival has made other tweaks. It's straying, for instance, from its usual pattern of opening with a Canadian feature and instead will kick off with a documentary about U2, “From the Sky Down,” from American director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”).
The movie chronicles the making of the Irish band's classic album “Achtung Baby” two decades ago and features never-seen footage and new interviews. “This is a story of a family of guys that make music. They hit this point where they have to reinvent themselves or die,” said Guggenheim of the film, which will debut later this year on Showtime.
Pearl Jam is the subject of another Toronto musical documentary, this one from director Cameron Crowe and titled “Pearl Jam Twenty,” marking the band's 20-year anniversary. Meanwhile, director Jonathan Demme is taking another look at Neil Young, his third collaboration with the musician, in “Neil Young Journeys.”
The festival also serves as a place where hungry distributors can pick up new movies, sometimes turning them around for U.S. audiences to see within a matter of months.
A number of high-profile films will be looking for buyers at this year's edition. A partial list includes “Shame,” a sexually explicit drama starring Michael Fassbender that earned raves at the Venice Film Festival; “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a satire from director Lasse Hallström based on a script by “Slumdog Millionaire” writer Simon Beaufoy; and Sarah Polley's marital drama “Take This Waltz,” a follow-up to her well-regarded “Away From Her.”
Photos: Pluses and minuses for the Toronto Film Festival lineup
Other films up for grabs include “Friends With Kids,” a collaboration between real-life couple Jennifer Westfeldt and Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” fame; “The Moth Diaries,” a vampire movie from the counter-cultural specialist Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”); and “Violet & Daisy,” the directorial debut of Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “Precious.”
“It's a bit of a hybrid, I know that,” said Fletcher of his film, whose plot has been kept secret but which he said blends drama, comedy and action and stars Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel in the title roles. “I just hope the festival is a place where people will see it and keep an open mind.”
Other directors are similarly crossing their fingers. “Salmon Fishing” centers on a scientist (Ewan McGregor) who is sent to the wadis of Yemen with the aim of bringing salmon fishing to the locals. “It's that wonderful dream of crossing cultural waters, and what happens when it doesn't exactly go right,” says Hallström, who stepped in to direct the movie after “Breaking Dawn” helmer Bill Condon left the project.
Toronto isn't always a showcase for movies without distribution or high-profile fall films from the studios, however. Mark and Jay Duplass, the independent-film darlings (“The Puffy Chair”) who entered a higher-budget stratum with 2010's “Cyrus,” will come to the festival with “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” a movie financed and produced by Paramount Pictures. A dramatic comedy starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms as estranged brothers who must learn how to communicate, the film won't come out until early 2012.
But the Duplass brothers (they wrote and directed the movie, which costars Susan Sarandon) said they felt a Toronto launch was essential. “We wanted to stamp this as an art-house comedy, and we needed a six-month runway to do that,” said Mark Duplass, who will also be on hand to promote “Your Sister's Sister,” in which he stars opposite Rosemarie Dewitt and Emily Blunt.
It's the first time the brothers are premiering a movie at Toronto — their movies often debut at the more casual, independent-oriented Sundance Film Festival in January — but they say they're ready to make the adjustment.
“Guess we'll be leaving our hoodies at home,” Mark Duplass said. “We may even have to go shoe shopping.”
-- Nicole Sperling and Steve Zeitchik
Photos, from top: Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in the movie "50/50." (Credit: Ed Araquel/Summit Entertainment); workers prepare the red carpet area at Roy Thomson Hall for the start of the 36th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Wednesday (Reuters/Mike Cassese).