The Toronto Film Festival: Attention, George Clooney Is A Huge Movie Star!
At last year's Toronto Film Festival, the big stories were Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler. Slumdog garnered an audience award and much praise from critics, and a few months later it won the Oscar for Best Picture. The Wrestler, which arrived in Toronto without a distributor, caused a bidding war that was eventually won by Fox Searchlight. Although neither film boasted marquee stars (the former featured actors unknown in the U.S. and the latter staked everything on the then reputation-challenged Mickey Rourke), it was clear from the festival buzz that these two under-the-radar movies were destined to be hits. This year is a little different.
Clooney! Oprah! Sad stories of being fired! All this, after the jump...
The films that are getting the most buzz are the ones with the splashiest red carpets: the ones where streets are blocked off in front of the theater, the traffic stops, and rows and rows of fans behind barricades raise their cameras and cell phones over their heads until their arms burn, hoping to capture a shot of a major star.
Jason Reitman's Up In the Air starring George Clooney, is emerging as the hit of the festival. Even some of the more cynical critics, who would much rather name a foreign or smaller film as a festival pick, are 'fessing up that they were impressed by the story of Ryan Bingham, a fortyish corporate hitman companies hire to do their firing. Clooney's character likes to think he lets people down with some class. He loves travel, and he's on the verge of reaching 10 million frequent flyer miles, a goal he has been working toward for years. But one day his boss (played by Jason Bateman) tells him the company is changing its business plan and will begin firing people remotely. He threatens to ground Bingham in Omaha, Nebraska.
People are calling this film a shoo-in for a Best Picture slot and Clooney (also appearing in the festival film The Men Who Stare at Goats) a sure Best Actor nominee. That isn't all: other nominations could go to co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, and to Reitman, who adapted the screenplay from a 2001 Walter Kirn book. It's a great movie, particularly given the current economic climate. At a press conference, Reitman revealed that when he started writing it years ago, the firing scenes were meant to be played for laughs. But as the economy soured, those scenes became sad and serious. He even consulted with, and featured in the film to great effect, ordinary people who have been laid off.
Although Clooney is a ginormous star, arguably the biggest celebrity at the festival was Oprah Winfrey, who was here supporting the film Precious. Precious, which is based on a best-selling novel by the poet Sapphire, was a "little movie that could" when it premiered this past winter at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, directed by Lee Daniels (who has plenty of indie cred, having produced Monster's Ball and The Woodsman and directed Shadowboxer), is the story of an abused, obese, 16-year-old girl who is pregnant with her father's child for a second time. It features a few stars, but they're playing against type — comedian Mo'Nique takes a serious turn as the teen's abusive mother, and Mariah Carey has an anti-glam supporting role in which she wears no makeup (this was a big topic of conversation at the Precious press conference).
Precious arrived at Sundance without a distributor, but it entered the Toronto Film Festival with Lionsgate in its corner and some heavy promotional backing. Since Sundance, Winfrey and Tyler Perry, a media conglomerate in his own right, signed on as executive producers of the film, meaning it has financial backing and the official Oprah seal of approval — she even plans to feature it on her show. People are talking about Oscar nominations for Mo'Nique and Gabourney "Gabby" Sidibe, the newcomer who plays Precious. With the new expanded 10-nominee format for best picture, "Precious" may sneak onto the list.
So which film is this year's The Wrestler, inspiring competing studios to bid throughout the night? Industry sages were predicting that there would be no bidding wars, because the economic climate is making studio execs overly cautious. Even films with stars, like Get Low with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray or Harry Brown with Michael Caine, are still waiting for studio entities to buy distribution rights. And given the state of the economy, these films may wait a while.
But not everything has had to wait. The Weinstein Company acquired A Single Man after negotiations late into Tuesday morning. (Notably, Harvey Weinstein, who used to be known for his festival buying, hasn't bought a film this way in a few years.) Starring Colin Firth as a gay professor in the 1960s dealing with the loss of his partner, A Single Man is the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. Will this acquisition jump-start some deal-making before the festival draws to a close on Saturday? Will these films be left unpurchased or will studios be looking for some last-minute bargains? Stay tuned.
Ann Marie Baldonado is a producer for Fresh Air.