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Toronto film fest builds buzz, but business is off

Cast member Michelle Yeoh greets fans on the red carpet for the film "The Lady" during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival
Cast member Michelle Yeoh greets fans on the red carpet for the film "The Lady" during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival

By Christine Kearney

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto International Film Festival reached its midpoint on Tuesday with films like the "The Descendants" and actor Michael Fassbender winning praise, but a nagging question about the future of dark dramas in Hollywood has hovered over the event.

Toronto, which along with recently wrapped festivals in Venice and Telluride, helps launch the movie awards season and industry pros gather here to build buzz for their films. Yet, while some dramas here have been praised for their stories and characters, few business deals have been made to put many of those movies into theaters.

Industry observers, such as Sony Pictures Classics head Michael Barker, said that while Toronto is "the ideal way to launch a film," there have been fewer deals made so far due to some content being considered a hard sell for consumers.

"Regarding new films that haven't been acquired, my personal belief is it's been slower than in previous years," Barker told Reuters.

Among the more popular work has been George Clooney's starring role as a soul-searching father in "The Descendants," as well as his directing and acting in political thriller "The Ides of March."

Clooney showed up on the red carpet for debuts of both films. "The Descendants," from Alexander Payne who directed the Oscar-winning "Sideways," brings a familiar blend of comedy and tragedy set this time against a Hawaiian backdrop. It earned a standing ovation at its premiere.

FILM BUZZ

"Shame," which was acquired by Fox Searchlight before the festival but may be a hard sell in theaters for various full frontal nudity and sex scenes, won over critics for British director Steve McQueen and lead actor Fassbender, an award winner at last week's Venice film festival.

Fassbender, 34, has seen his acting career blossom after a performance in McQueen's first feature, "Hunger," which led to a role in "Inglourious Basterds" and another film showing at Toronto this year, David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method." He remained humble about a possible best actor Oscar nomination.

"I don't think about it too much to be honest, because that way madness lies," he said. "My energy is better placed in other areas, just really in terms of my work."

Brad Pitt's low key performance in "Moneyball" playing real life baseball manager Billy Beane also earned applause, as did Glenn Close's gender-bending turn as a shy butler who passes herself off as a man in poverty stricken Ireland.

Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous" also earned early praise for its tale that questions whether Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was truly the man responsible for the remarkable collection of plays and poems by William Shakespeare.

Among foreign films, Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness" has impressed, and of the many high-profile documentaries here, early favorites have been Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss" and the Cameron Crowe-directed "Pearl Jam Twenty."

Madonna's film "W.E." which received mixed reviews in Venice, again was complimented for its visual style but was found lacking in story. Luc Besson's "The Lady" received a standing ovation and cheers at its gala premiere in Toronto on Monday, but early reviews of the movie have been mixed.

FILM BUSINESS

Coming off strong indie film markets at 2011's Sundance and Cannes festivals, Barker said that while the Toronto movies have been accomplished, they are not easy sells.

"We have seen a lot of decent movies but a lot that are a real question mark, a real risk as to how they will work in the marketplace," he said. "These movies have subject matter that you are not as confident whether they will really cross over with the public.

One film that may divide audiences is Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," starring Viggo Mortensen, Fassbender and Keira Knightley. It includes some harrowing scenes to depict the turbulent relationships between Carl Jung, his mentor Sigmund Freud and patient Sabina Spielrein.

"I don't think the film is an easy film and it is shocking," Knightley told Reuters. "If you are doing that, then you are going to expect people to either like it or not."

Filmmakers and actors here hoped their films might convince studios that adult dramas still had a market because in recent years, box offices have favored comedies and escapist fare.

Both Payne and Clooney said audiences do exist for adult dramas, and they want "The Descendants" to help prove that.

"I hope that other filmmakers and financiers can point to it, if it has any degree of success, as an example that there is still a lucrative and hungry American market for such a film," said Payne.

Fassbender said the positive reaction from audiences to "Shame" was a good sign. "There is still a place, contrary to many of the films being made, for an intelligent, brave audience that can take chances and involve themselves in a film," he told reporters.

But others had darker predictions, including filmmaker and actor Albert Brooks, who said the long-term future of offbeat, indie cinema may end up on the Web and not in cinemas.

"The business of getting people into theaters seems to me have been going more of the way of the big event, hence the 3D," he said. "Being in the experimental business of cinema seems to be not a good business model."

(Additional reporting by Cameron French, editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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