Although the darkened screening rooms of Sundance in January and the red carpets of Cannes in May often serve as an early predictor for award season, it's the double threat of Telluride and Toronto in September that helps with down-to-the-wire predictions.
While a handful of films, such as Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" and Davis Guggenheim's school documentary "Waiting for 'Superman' " — both of which debuted at Sundance — and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," which premiered at Venice, have been able to maintain buzz and momentum throughout the year, the last-quarter timing of Telluride and Toronto can give a film enough of a boost at just the right time to keep it in voters minds until ballots are mailed later in the season.
"There's industry buzz and then there's the buzz of people who just want to go to the movies, and I think Toronto is perfect for that because it has both," says producer Christine Vachon ("I'm Not There," "Boys Don't Cry").
Awards pundits have seen Colin Firth dominate Toronto for the second year in a row: last year with "A Single Man" and this year with "The King's Speech" (opening Nov. 26). Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful" (Dec. 29) premiered at Cannes but emerged as a serious foreign-language contender at Toronto, while Ben Affleck's already released "The Town" debuted at Venice and resurged at Toronto. Telluride saw Peter Weir's "The Way Back" (with a qualifying run starting Dec. 29) make its North American entrance to positive reviews.
However, there can be a vast difference between a film's buzz heading into a festival and going out of one. So when a film meets expectations, word of mouth can explode. For example, Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," about imperiled rock climber Aron Ralston released last week, premiered at Telluride in September and provided a first look at a much-anticipated follow-up to the director's " Slumdog Millionaire."
"There's a combination of everyone's anticipation matched with what actually performs," says David Fenkel, Oscilloscope Pictures executive. "Somebody like James Franco for '127 Hours' coming out of Telluride and Toronto, because of the critical acclaim, I think that movie and his performance are very well set up for Oscars."
Yet, no matter how much audiences might rave about a film, it won't be in contention without distribution. For a well-regarded film such as John Cameron Mitchell's family drama "Rabbit Hole," getting a pickup from Lionsgate during Toronto almost instantaneously propelled it to the top of awards-watchers' lists.
"When Cameron Bailey [co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival] introduced the film before it was about to premiere, he said that John Cameron Mitchell had directed Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart to career-best performances. I remember sitting in the audience thinking, 'That is a huge statement for anyone to make.' Then when you watch the film, it turns out that he was accurate," says Lionsgate acquisitions exec Jason Constantine.
Oscilloscope's Fenkel agrees that "Rabbit Hole," (opening Dec. 17) is worthy of the attention: "It deserves it, and I don't think it will be overlooked. I think they're smart to go out at the end of this year," he says.
Constantine points out that Lionsgate had a last-quarter opening in its release schedule, so making sure "Rabbit Hole" fell into this year's award season was a natural. But there's some disagreement over which reigns as the key to a film's award season chances: an end-of-the-year release, or garnering strong buzz early.
Last year's best picture-best director winner, "The Hurt Locker," for example, was acquired by Summit at Toronto in 2008 but was held for release until the summer of 2009. Anchor Bay's Kevin Kasha says that was a risk that could have backfired.
"The awards are there every year," Kasha says. "It's a question of picking the right date instead of rushing it out and taking a chance that it could get lost."