TORONTO — The 44th Toronto International Film Festival is kicking off Thursday with a documentary celebration of Canada’s own The Band and the premiere of Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of “David Copperfield.”
The start of North America’s largest film festival heralds the beginning of the fall movie season and the coming Oscar race. It’s a condensed awards season due to an earlier Academy Awards date, adding a little more pressure on films to make a strong impression right out of the gate.
Among the films on tap at this year’s TIFF are the Mr. Rogers drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks, the Jennifer Lopez stripper revenge tale “Hustlers,” Eddie Murphy’s Netflix film “Dolemite Is My Name,” the Christian Bale-Matt Damon auto-racing tale “Ford v Ferrari,” the legal drama “Just Mercy,” with Michael B. Jordan, and “Judy,” with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland.
Set to open the festival Thursday night was “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band,” a documentary based on Robertson’s 2016 memoir “Testify.” Playing later in the evening, too, is Martin Scorsese’s 1978 classic concert film on The Band’s final show, “The Last Waltz.”
Also debuting is Iannucci’s Dickens adaptation “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” starring Dev Patel. It is the latest film from the “Veep” creator and writer-director the 2017 satire “The Death of Stalin.”
Heading into the festival, both films had been up for sale but before the curtain went up, both had been sold. That’s a potentially promising start to what is one of the most frenetic movie markets. Late last month, Fox Searchlight acquired “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” with plans to release it next year. Magnolia Pictures picked up “Once Were Brothers” on Thursday.
It’s not uncommon for a high-profile film to draw a bidding war in Toronto and then be quickly inserted into awards season. That’s what happened with the Tonya Harding tale “I, Tonya” two years ago, when Neon bought it after heated bidding. It went on to land three Academy Awards nominations, with Allison Janney winning the best supporting actress statuette.
Whether the films available this year hold such potential remains to be seen.
“Are we going to find another ‘I, Tonya’? I don’t know. It’s lightning in a bottle,” said Tom Quinn, founder and chief executive of the two-year-old specialty label Neon.
With a number of media companies looking for content, bidding has been ratcheted up in recent years. Companies like Netflix and Amazon have regularly acquired films for much higher prices than their Hollywood and New York-based film rivals have typically paid.
But “festival fever” can also lead to painful hangovers. Two years ago Louis C.K.’s “I Love You Daddy” was acquired at Toronto for some $5 million by The Orchard, only to have their investment get derailed by accusations of sexual misconduct against the comedian. C.K. bought the movie’s distribution rights back and the film remains unreleased.
More recently, a number of the high-priced acquisition at Sundance have disappointed at the summer box office, including “Late Night,” ‘’Blinded by the Light” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” One notable exception was A24’s “The Farewell,” directed by Lulu Wang and starring Awkwafina. Having made $16.2 million, it’s one of the most successful art-house releases of the year.
“The sky is falling for a lot of the industry, which I’m old enough now to have seen that happen in three cycles. Amidst that, we’ve had a pretty nice run this year,” said Quinn, whose slate this year has included the hit documentaries “Apollo 11” and “Amazing Grace.” ‘’I’ve been doing this long enough where I go with lowered expectations and then I’m happily surprised.”