Everyone in Hollywood reads the industry tea leaves, the probable truth behind every announcement and its attendant spin. As the awards season takes shape, three major releases are jockeying for position: "Gone Girl,""Inherent Vice" and "Birdmanor the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." The Hollywood studios, indie distributors, Oscar campaigners and strategists were pushing the New York Film Festival (September 26 – October 12) for their awards hopefuls, wanting to land a coveted gala slot.
The NYFF is a well-curated selection of art films, for the most part, from all over the world, so its three galas are the most accessible films they book–they function as the tentpoles, if you will, of the entire program, attracting the most attention and praise. And the distributors and talent get a boost–they hope, in the best of all worlds–in their presumed awards campaigns.
What do we make of the placement of these three films at this fall’s NYFF? They got in because they struck the fancy of NYFF director and selection committee chair Kent Jones, who has close relationships with all three filmmakers. That trumped whatever pressure Toronto International Film Festival director Cameron Bailey brought to bear to lure those films to his earlier festival. Paul Thomas Anderson personally screened "Inherent Vice" for Jones early on, and wound up with the Centerpiece Gala. Jones exacted world premieres for that (it remains to be seen if Anderson will honor it) and Opening Night, but not Closing Night.
That’s because while Fox Searchlight Pictures chased after opening night for "Birdman," the black comedy from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel") had to settle instead for the closer–and a world premiere opening at the earlier Venice International Film Festival. That’s because parent studio Twentieth Century Fox grabbed the NYFF opening night spot for David Fincher’s "Gone Girl," starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. (We’ll see if "Birdman" also turns up at Searchlight favorite Telluride, which doesn’t announce its program in advance and doesn’t lay claim to official world premieres.) This marks Gonalzez-Iñárritu’s third go-round at NYFF, after "Amores Perros" (2000) and "21 Grams" (2003). Searchlight Pictures will open the New Regency release in select theaters on October 17.
Jones wanted "Birdman" for closing night because it was such a New York movie, set in the theater world, about an agonized actor in career crisis. Word is that Keaton as an ex-superstar on Broadway and supporting player Edward Norton as his narcissistic costar will be up for Oscar noms, along with the swirling camerawork of "Gravity" Oscar-winning cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki. (Also starring are Zach Galifianakis as his manager, Naomi Watts as his vulnerable costar, Andrea Riseborough as his unhinged girlfriend and Emma Stone as his resentful daughter.)
"Gone Girl" is likely the most commercial crowd-pleaser of the trio. The studio film has to play to a wide black-tie crowd of New York patrons, donors, media and Academy members. Plus it has major movie star Affleck to walk the red carpet and help publicize the upcoming festival–as well as the film’s imminent wide release October 3. The festival has developed a comfort zone with Fox, having opened with "Life of Pi" in 2012–mounting an elaborate one-time event, a two-projector 3-D screening for Ang Li, who went on to win Best Director among other Oscars. In 2013, on the other hand, Fox had a bit of a setback with "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which wound up playing better for mainstream audiences than for the fest crowd and critics. It came up empty-handed on Oscar nominations morning.
Centerpiece Gala "Inherent Vice," while it comes from Warner Bros., is likely to be the least commercial of the NYFF trio. Again, like Anderson’s "The Master," the film may get critics masticating and rushing to explain it, but it was clearly not opening night material. First, Joaquin Phoenix cannot be relied upon to fulfill the PR component demanded by a starry opener. Co-stars Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro will have to pick up the promo slack. And Anderson is not one for the press line either. Am I dying to see it? You bet. It opens December 12.
Meanwhile the 58th BFI London Film Festival launches October 8 with the European premiere of Morten Tyldum’s World War II nail-biter "The Imitation Game" (November 21) which means that the Weinstein Co. film won’t play the film in Venice but it will turn up in Telluride, Toronto or New York. It’s the perfect local opener as Benedict Cumberbatch (decoder Alan Turning) and Keira Knightley will be on hand for red carpet duty. Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard also star. TWC plunked down a hefty advance of $7 million out of the Berlin market last February. Last year London opened with the European premiere of "Captain Phillips" and world premiered "Saving Mr. Banks" on closing night, partly to play for the influential BAFTA and Brit Academy contingent.
The question now is what winds up world premiering at Toronto, which threw down the gauntlet to distributors on no world premieres going to Telluride if you want to play the TIFF opening weekend. Their announcement comes Tuesday morning. So then we’ll know if "Wild," starring Reese Witherspoon, the Terrence Malick or Brad Pitt’s "Fury" will land gala slots. For opening night they may go local with one of three Cannes Canadian entries, Xavier Dolan’s "Mommy," "The Captives" (Atom Egoyan) or most likely, accessible Hollywood comedy "Maps of the Stars" (David Cronenberg), complete with Rob Pattinson and Cannes winner Julianne Moore for the red carpet. Hitfix lays out the odds.