Toronto Film Festival: A repeat for Danny Boyle and Darren Aronofsky?

Reporting from Toronto

In 2008, directors Danny Boyle and Darren Aronofsky came to the Toronto International Film Festival with two unknown commodities and emerged with awards-season favorites.

It looks like history is repeating itself.

The filmmakers, who previously wooed awards voters with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler,” respectively, are back this season with new films. And, as happened two years ago, both of them won goodwill and frontrunner status at Toronto, the preeminent North American film showcase that wrapped Sunday.

Boyle brought “127 Hours,” the story of trapped climber Aron Ralston ( James Franco), who is forced to cut off his own arm to survive. Aronofsky unveiled “Black Swan,” the supernatural-tinged tale of a ballerina ( Natalie Portman) who may be having delusions ahead of her big performance.

Coming in to Toronto, many didn’t know what to expect from “127 Hours” — whose claustrophobic setting seemed an unusual fit for the quick-cut, high-energy Boyle — or from “Swan,” a movie whose premise and tone are unusual enough that it struggled for a decade to get made and nearly fell apart just before production because of financing issues.

But the two films wound up generating some of the strongest public and media response. That elicited comparisons to two years ago, when a strong Toronto catapulted “Slumdog” to eight Oscars, including best picture, and “The Wrestler” landed two Oscar acting nominations and won a total of six BAFTA, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit awards.

“‘Black Swan’ clearly struck a nerve, and showed us that this can go well beyond being an art or a ballet film,” said Stephen Gilula, president of Fox Searchlight, which is releasing both titles. “Likewise with Danny — it shows he can go on to another genre and still take people on a journey.”

Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” — the British drama from the Weinstein Co. about a young George VI ( Colin Firth), who turns to an unconventional teacher ( Geoffrey Rush) to overcome his stutter and lead England at the dawn of World War II — was also a big winner at Toronto.

It came into the festival carrying the stigma of a niche film, but left town with buzz that it could land Oscar nominations for all three of its principal actors (Firth, Rush and Helena Bonham Carter) and be a serious contender for best picture. It also won the top audience prize at Toronto, underlining that the film has mainstream appeal.

Still, some pundits point out that being a frontrunner out of Toronto means little come voting time. Last year, for instance, Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” emerged from the festival as the best picture favorite but wound up winning no Oscars.

“Until movies screen in L.A., you won’t really know where they stand,” says one veteran awards strategist. “Sometimes, Toronto can be like Sundance — the reactions are overblown.”

For now, however, the 2008 comparisons are unmistakable. And as in that year, a David Fincher movie that didn’t come here hovers in the background. (Then it was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; this year, it’s the Facebook drama “The Social Network.”)

Toronto tends to clarify the race in other ways. This year, a lead actress field that had been seen as shaky got stronger as the festival went on, first with Portman’s well-regarded performance in “Swan” and then when Lionsgate acquired “Rabbit Hole.” The John Cameron Mitchell adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s grieving-mother story earned raves for lead Nicole Kidman, and Lionsgate said it would release the movie this awards season to make a push for the Aussie actress.

“This is an extraordinary film that falls into that classic word-of- mouth model where you walk out of the theater and encourage people to go see it,” said Jason Constantine, Lionsgate’s president of acquisitions and co-productions. “And the fact that we had an opportunity on our release schedule in December and January made it a galvanizing opportunity from a timing perspective.”

Lionsgate has a knack for buying movies out of Toronto and turning their actresses into Oscar contenders. It did the same four years ago for Julie Christie and her Alzheimer’s drama “Away From Her.” The company also had a strong Oscar actress run in both the lead and supporting categories last year with “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which the company bought at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

The acquisitions market at Toronto proved more robust than many had expected. After a run of festivals where just three or four movies sold to a limited number of distributors, Toronto saw more than a dozen go to pretty much any independent-film distributor still in business.

In a feverish final weekend, Focus Features picked up Mike Mills’ dramedy “Beginners,” Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions teamed up to buy the Will Ferrell drama “Everything Must Go” (after previously joining to buy Robert Redford’s morality play “The Conspirator”) and IFC took the dysfunctional-family comedy “Peep World.”

Meanwhile, Oscilloscope went home with the dark Finnish comedy “Rare Exports,” adding to its earlier pickup of critical favorite “Meek’s Cutoff,” a western-flavored bit of art-house atmospherics. The Weinstein Co. bought two movies earlier in the festival, the Welsh coming-of-age dramedy “Submarine” and the ‘80s American coming-of-age comedy “Dirty Girl,” while Sony Pictures Classics took prizewinner “Incendies” and the Paul Giamatti dramedy “Barney’s Version.”

“The success of some films that had been considered challenging has emboldened some distributors. And the lack of heavy bidding has made it easier to make deals,” Gilula said. “The business is balancing out.”