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September 9, 2002 2:00 AM
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TORONTO 2002: Across the Border, Hollywood Feels Right at Home

TORONTO 2002: Across the Border, Hollywood Feels Right at Home

by Stephen Garrett



(indieWIRE/ 09.09.02) -- A sure sign that film festival paradigms were shifting
came in 1996, when Kevin
Spacey
was a guest on "Live with
Regis and Kathy Lee
" and mentioned his
directing debut, "Albino
Alligator
." "There's only one place in the world I'm
going to
take it to premiere," he said.
"And that's the Toronto International Film Festival."


Over the past decade, Toronto
and Hollywood have grown to have the sort of fruitful
relationship rarely seen with
other film festivals. Cannes used to be the belle of
the
ball when it came to showing
Hollywood's best, back when 1976's "Taxi Driver" won
the Palme d'Or and "E.T." was
1982's closing-night film. And while the siren song of
the Riviera still lures --
1997's "L.A. Confidential" and 2001's "Moulin Rouge"
are the
most recent examples -- lately
the studios have generally eschewed the French for
their Canadian colleagues. This
year, the Toronto catalog lists three films from
Disney, two from Paramount, two
from Universal, three from Warner Bros., two from
20th Century Fox and one from
Columbia. And, following in the footsteps of Spacey,
two actors are also bringing
their directing debuts: Denzel Washington with
"Antwone Fisher" and Matt Dillon
with "City of Ghosts."


"Hollywood relationships have
evolved significantly over the years, and they're very
welcoming and very warm," says
Michelle Maheux, managing director of the festival.
"We kid about this, but on our
trips to L.A., it just to be just 15-minute meetings,
and then it was breakfasts, and
now it's lunches and dinners at people's homes."


And the studios are reciprocal
in their compliments. "We're delighted and honored
to be part of the festival,"
says Sherry Lansing, chairman of the motion picture
group
of Paramount Pictures. "Plus,
this town is such a great place for film and for being
with all your peers. It's a
great launching pad."


Big stars are nothing new to
Toronto, where tributes to celebrities such as Warren
Beatty
were common in the '80s
and where Hollywood films have always been
represented. And since the
mandate of the founders was to have a "festival of
festivals," it's not surprising
that Toronto is oftentimes the first place to see
movies
that later stake their claim at
the Academy Awards. In 1981, "Chariots of Fire" had
its premiere in Toronto on the
way to picking up the best picture Oscar the following
spring, while in 1983 "The Big
Chill
" made its world premiere at the festival before
eventually getting three Oscar
nominations, including best picture.


But the watershed year for
Hollywood was 1999, when the world premiere of
"American Beauty" caused such a
sensation that it created the first big media push
for what eventually became a
$100 million Oscar-winning blockbuster. And that
experience highlighted how much
the studios could tap into festival press with their
junket mentality. "It wasn't
until a few years ago that Hollywood realized they
could
make hay with the journalists
from all over the world," says Maheux. "When I first
started 14 years ago, there
would be one or two junkets, and now there are four or
five just on the weekend and
another couple at the end of the festival." It's no
surprise that the dark,
ferocious "Training Day" made its debut at Toronto and
in the
months that followed parlayed
the positive festival media buzz into two Oscar
nominations -- including a best
actor win for Denzel Washington.


If they want to, the studios can
also have their big splashy Hollywood debuts
without any buzzkill reviews:
this year there are two movies being presented as
"works in progress," including
"8 Mile" and "The Wild Thornberrys." This situation
follows the lead of Norman
Jewison
who, in 2000, unveiled "The Hurricane" as a
work in progress en route to a
best actor nomination for Washington.


With critic-proof screenings,
enthusiastic audiences selling out venues and
international junkets serving as
a world megaphone, Toronto might look in danger of
being co-opted by the studios.
"I think there has always been the fear that
Hollywood would hijack the
festival to a certain degree," says Maheux. "But it's
also
important to note that over 50
countries are represented and the languages are by
and large not English." Because
the big-budgeted, star-studded productions
invariably make a large splash
at Toronto, it's sometimes hard to believe -- and
good to remember -- that
Hollywood is responsible for only 5 percent of the
more than 300
films on view. "This is an
incredibly international event," says Maheux. "And we
are
deeply indebted to all the
distributors -- both Hollywood and independent -- for
bringing us their films.

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