By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 13, 2011 at 5:28AM
At a film festival, nothing is more dreadful than a blank screen. But that's what audiences confronted last Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival during the first few minutes of "Your Sister's Sister," the latest feature from "Humpday" director Lynn Shelton. Then came those seven dreaded words: There's something wrong in the projection booth.
That was also the issue that faced "The Descendants," Fox Searchlight's Oscar-bound George Clooney vehicle from "Sideways" director Alexander Payne. When the film failed to load -- as a digital download, that's the equivalent of a print being stuck in traffic -- prior to its 9 a.m. TIFF press and industry screening last week, journalists and industry members had to wait over an hour before it began. The resulting domino effect on the day's schedule meant that many people had to either leave early or miss their next screening engagement to catch the whole thing.
"The Descendants" can more easily weather a snafu. A star-driven project with a major distributor in place, it was soaked with buzz ahead of its Toronto arrival thanks to a warm reception at Telluride. When these mishaps occur for smaller movies, the fragility of the festival environment becomes clear. One wrong move and a movie might never make it out of the room.
In addition to the ticket-paying public, Toronto is a packed festival littered with distributors and sales agents from around the globe. That dense amalgam of people turns each screening into an incredibly valuable and sensitive moment. It was therefore inevitable that Fox Searchlight immediately alerted the press when "The Descendants" received a standing ovation at its official premiere that evening.
For unsold movies, an enthusiastic response is further amplified. The ecstatic reaction to the Midnight Madness entry "You're Next" resulted in an explosion of interest when 30 people were turned away from the indie slasher's press and industry screening. Instant positive reaction tends to make buyers salivate.
But if that's the case, where are the sales? So far, the 36th edition of the festival has seen limited activity among U.S. buyers. Steven McQueen's sexaholic profile "Shame" sold to Fox Searchlight over the weekend, but it boarded the buzz train at the Venice Film Festival. Ditto Samuel Goldwyn Films' pickup of biopic "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel."
Similarly, Zeitgeist Films picked up “Elena,” the noir thriller from Andrei Zvyagintsev, which won a Special Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes in Un Certain Regard. And Film Movement announced its purchase of two Toronto titles that premiered elsewhere: French thriller "Free Men" (Cannes) and Julia Murat's Brazilian drama "Historias" (Venice).
In terms of Toronto premieres, there's been Lasse Hallstrom's Middle East-set romantic comedy "Salmon Fishing in Yemen," which went to CBS Films, while Magnet picked up U.S. rights to hockey comedy "Goon" and Cohen Media Group bought thriller "The Awakening" starring Rebecca Hall. However, no one's mistaking these titles for this year's "The King's Speech." They're safe bets, not major discoveries.
The slow pace of sales may reflect lesser quality at this year's program, at least in the more obvious places. (Following the buzz often means missing the gems.) However, another reason lurks beneath the surface: A festival is a charged environment and a festival audience isn't the same thing as a real audience. Prior experiences may not dictate future results.
Bobcat Goldthwait's enjoyably subversive "God Bless America," which features a disgruntled blue-collar worker and a 16-year-old girl gleefully killing reality TV stars, received a riotous response at its Midnight Madness premiere. Audiences cheered after virtually every monologue delivered by Frank (Joel Murray) about the ills of contemporary media. But a movie this violent and irreverent won't easily translate onto a billboard. It remains unsold. [Editor's note: However, a few hours after we published this piece, it did sell. Magnet took worldwide rights.)
"You're Next" is just as likely to wind up at a midsize distributor, as is the Sarah Polley-directed "Take This Waltz" thanks to its marketable cast of Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams.
And then there's "Your Sister's Sister," which solidifies the director's stature as one of the most skillful American filmmakers directing comedy today. It also has two stars (Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt), which certainly doesn't hurt. Most importantly, however, "Your Sister's Sister" has good luck: At the premiere, the audience waited just long enough for the projector issue to subside, inadvertently building anticipation that worked in its favor. Cheers were massive once the first credit popped up on the screen. For once, the problem fixed itself.
Of course, judging films on the basis of commercial appeal runs counter to the festival ideal, which presumes a dedication to showing good movies for their own sake. Still, there's a middle ground between art and commerce that requires constant discussion. If TIFF exists in an insular world, there must be a plan for some movies to cross over to the next one.