After Toronto, small films prime for peak season

Michael Keaton in a scene from Alejandro Gonz?lez I??rritu’s film “Birdman.”

ANGELES: The red carpets have rolled up and the festival awards are adjudicated. Now comes the deluge of small and independent films for fall viewing and Oscar baiting.

Unlike last year – when “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” emerged from the Toronto, Venice and Telluride festivals as solid front-runners for awards – the fate of the 2014 class is more uncertain. There are many acclaimed films on the horizon, but the race for February’s Academy Awards is wide open.

One strong contender is Toronto’s top winner “The Imitation Game,” the biopic of British World War II code-breaker Alan Turing, who was later persecuted for being gay. Turing is played by the popular Benedict Cumberbatch, a casting choice that likely helped the movie win the public-voted best film prize. Toronto’s victor last year, “12 Years a Slave,” won the Oscar best picture in a showdown with “Gravity.”

“It is a great place to present a film,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony’s art-house unit Sony Pictures Classics, which showcased nine films at North America’s top festival. “The presentation, the aura, the atmosphere – the best place for critics and exhibitors to see the film with the kind of responsive audience.”

He and co-president Tom Bernard presented Sundance winner “Whiplash,” about a jazz drummer obsessed with perfection, and “Foxcatcher,” the Cannes favorite starring an unrecognizable Steve Carell as a du Pont family scion who murders a wrestling champ.

Both films have received critical acclaim and Sony waited to release them in the fall to increase their awards potential.

The Weinstein Co., behind “The Imitation Game,” also came out of Toronto with momentum for “St. Vincent,” starring Bill Murray as a hard-living curmudgeon and unlikely mentor to a boy. It won the second runner-up prize.

Other films that stood out at TIFF were “The Theory of Everything,” a biopic of British physicist Stephen Hawking and Reese Witherspoon’s “Wild,” based on the best-selling memoir of a woman fighting her demons on a long wilderness trek.

Then there is “Birdman,” which opened Venice to rave reviews. The film stars Michael Keaton as a faded movie star trying to jump-start his career in a biting statement about American celebrity.

“I think you are going to have a spectacular fall,” Barker said. “It’s regrettable that everybody waits to the fall because some are not going to survive at the box office.”

A new player to the scene, Saban Films, is undaunted by the competition. The distributor set up by media mogul Haim Saban is releasing its first film, “The Homesman,” a Western directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones.

“The more something else succeeds,” Saban Films President Bill Bromiley said, “the more it drives people to go to the movies.”

Despite the successful year for smaller films including coming-of-age tale “Boyhood” and Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” TIFF’s film market was subdued.

Bernard noted that Sony Pictures Classics was much more active at Sundance and Cannes. “People,” he said, “are not looking at this place as a market like they used to.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 17, 2014, on page 16.




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