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Films jockeying for standout position

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By Steven Zeitchik

Los Angeles Times

(TNS)

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday night with a highly anticipated movie — “Demolition,” the new drama from “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallee starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a semi-unhinged Wall Street trader.

It’s an apt title.

By showing hundreds of films and attracting scores of media, the Toronto festival is the unofficial start to the fall movie season. There’s one catch for “Demolition,” however: The picture won’t be released then.

In an attempt to avoid the grisly derby hinted at by its name, studio Fox Searchlight has decided to open “Demolition” in April, well outside the cutthroat and crowded fall, in a move that highlights just how intense the season has become.

The four-month moviegoing period that officially begins at the Toronto film fest, which will also have an opening night screening of Michael Moore’s mysterious new picture, “Where to Invade Next,” brings a smile to the face of cinephiles. After the summer superhero barrage, September heralds a respite as screens give way to serious fare.

And this year, there is a gush of such material: At least 70 films will compete for screens and attention between now and Christmas, an average of nearly five new entries each weekend.

“I don’t know the last time it was this crowded,” said Rena Ronson, an agent and specialty-film expert agent at the United Talent Agency. “There’s maybe one week on the calendar where a distributor can still sneak in a movie.”

The main reason for the barrage is a confluence of new and old players.

Established specialty divisions are in full effect — Sony Pictures Classics will bring out the Dan Rather tale “Truth” and the Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light,” Fox Searchlight will release the Saoirse Ronan immigrant story “Brooklyn” and the Malala Yousafzai doc “He Called Me Malala,” and the Weinstein Co. is rolling out the lesbian drama “Carol” and Quentin Tarantino’s western “The Hateful Eight.”

Upstart distributors are also ramping up — A24 with the Brie Larson character thriller “Room,” Broad Green with the Sarah Silverman drama “I Smile Back,” Open Road with the Michael Keaton Catholic Church tale “Spotlight” and Bleecker Street with the Bryan Cranston screenwriter tale “Trumbo.”

And after a period in which many of them sat out the award season game — particularly in wake of the financial crisis of 2008 — big Hollywood studios are throwing themselves headlong into it, too.

Universal has the true-crime story “Legend” and the Apple tale “Steve Jobs,” Sony is coming out with the Philippe Petit story “The Walk,” Fox has the revenge western “The Revenant” and the space procedural “The Martian,” and Warner Bros. is releasing the Whitey Bulger film “Black Mass” and the South American political drama “Our Brand Is Crisis.”

Many of these movies will be in Toronto, hoping to catch wind in their sails by attracting attention from traditional and social media. And that’s to say nothing of less award-minded but still mind share-gobbling pictures such as “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2,” the James Bond pic “Spectre” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

If the glut of films is something even paid pundits can find hard to keep track of, it can be downright overwhelming for moviegoers, who must decide where to allocate their dollars and free time.

Inevitably, experts say, some worthy titles lose out. “I think for some of these movies, it’s suicide coming out this time of year,” said Tom Bernard, co-chief of Sony Pictures Classics.

Last year, even the (slightly) smaller field claimed casualties, as well-reviewed films such as “Foxcatcher” and “A Most Violent Year” were crowded out by other movies at the box office. Even “Birdman,” which garnered the best picture Oscar and other top prizes, took in a solid but not spectacular $42 million, the second-lowest number among best picture winners dating back to the 1970s.

Still, studios remain seduced by the prospect of a fall release, either because filmmakers and actors clamor back-channel for the chance to be in an awards race (something that’s much harder to pull off with a spring or summer release) or because the studios believe their horses are a bit stronger and faster than the rest of the field. They’re buoyed by the movies in recent years that have ridden Oscar buzz to big dollars — “American Sniper,” “Gravity” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” among them.

This year, “The Martian,” which debuts at TIFF this weekend, will seek to do what “Gravity” and “Silver Linings” have done — garner word of mouth from a popular screening north of the border that can translate into box office when the film opens in the weeks following. Star power is typically key to this effort — the Ridley Scott film is a showcase for Matt Damon, who must use MacGuyver-like skills after being stranded on Mars.

Other movies will attempt the same in Toronto’s frenzied first weekend: “Legend” (Tom Hardy, in two roles) “Black Mass” (Johnny Depp as Bulger), “Truth” (Robert Redford as Rather) and “Trumbo” (Cranston as the blacklisted screenwriter). Others, however, are taking more unconventional approaches. SPC has decided that “Miles Ahead,” Don Cheadle’s directorial look at Miles Davis, will not open until the first half of next year, despite the movie closing the prestigious New York Film Festival — the same slot “Birdman” occupied last year.

And then there’s “Demolition.” Vallee returns to Toronto for the third time in as many years (he had “Wild” there in 2014). His last two films both garnered awards attention. But Searchlight believes it can maximize commercial prospects for the film, which offers a kind of black comedy as a tragic event forces Gyllenhaal’s character to make some radical changes, by releasing it in April, even if it means losing a little momentum in the interim.

However, the thousands of people who will greet it at upscale, paparazzi-filled screenings in Toronto make it hard for some involved to resist the siren call of awards season.

“Fox Searchlight is very clever and knows how to market movies like this,” Vallee said. But he added that he hadn’t ruled out a date shift. “We’ll see what happens,” he added with a small laugh. “I think (the date) can still change. April feels like a long time for audiences that aren’t at TIFF.”

©2015 Los Angeles Times

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Films jockeying for standout position