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New York Film Festival could bring Oscar buzz for movies such as ‘The Walk’ and ‘Steve Jobs’

Michael Fassbender appears in a scene from the film, "Steve Jobs."

Michael Fassbender appears in a scene from the film, “Steve Jobs.”

(AP)

The last movie to play the New York Film Festival — the curated gathering of movies that happens in the city every fall — did pretty well for itself. The selection was “Birdman,” and after the Michael Keaton-starring drama closed the confab last year, it went on to win four Oscars, including best picture.

When the 53rd edition of the festival begins again Saturday, with the debut of Robert Zemeckis’ whimsical high-wire drama “The Walk,” a new crop of hopefuls will try to track “Birdman’s” flight. An elite group of films will be making their world premieres, looking to set themselves apart from a pack that this year is more crowded than ever.

They’ll do so on a platform that has become increasingly important in the fall awards race, in part by avoiding some of the very bells and whistles inherent to other gatherings.

“We’re not seeking to have a say in award season,” said Kent Jones, the longtime NYFF programmer who took over as director of the festival in 2013. “We’re just thinking ‘what is good’ and trying to expose audiences to that. And I think for that reason people are coming to us.

The studios have indeed been flocking. Since NYFF tweaked its rules several years ago to require that at least two of its three high-profile slots (opening, closing and centerpiece) must be world premieres, those platforms have been invaluable to Hollywood players.

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Part of the reason for the influence is the more exclusive nature of the slate. Though the festival, which is run by and hosted at the upscale Lincoln Center, spans two weeks, there are just 28 films in the main selection, chosen by a small selection committee of film critics and experts. It’s a fraction of other festivals, which some lament have grown too crowded to effectively launch a film. (NYFF is even slightly smaller than usual this year since Pope Francis’ visit to the city forced it to delay opening night from Friday to Saturday, causing a few sections to shrink by a film or two.)

That means world premieres attract a huge share of attention, from both the city’s high proportion of media as well as industry attendees both local and from Los Angeles. That attention helped launch “Life of Pi,” “Captain Phillips” and “Her” on their awards run in recent years; all went on to be nominated for best picture and also were hits at the box office. Non-gala premieres helped send past contenders “Hugo” and “Lincoln” on their way.

But it also is a function of a larger shift in the climate. The festival world in general, and New York in particular, have come a long way from the days, not that long ago, when even a high-profile slot was likely to be a cineaste offering for local audiences. The elevated status of award season and the power of social media to shine a light on it has turned these slots into buzzworthy--and, for studios, mission-critical--events.

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This year, “The Walk,” which opens in limited release Wednesday before a wider rollout next month, will be accompanied in the high-profile slots by “Steve Jobs,” Danny Boyle’s movie about the Apple co-founder starring Michael Fassbender (centerpiece, next weekend) and the Miles Davis tale “Miles Ahead,” which stars and was directed, produced and co-written by Don Cheadle (closing night, in two weeks).

FULL COVERAGE: New York, Toronto and more film festivals

Among the non-gala world premieres is “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s Cold War-era thriller starring Tom Hanks, as Spielberg tries to repeat the feat of his “Lincoln,” a box-office and award-season success that had a non-gala world premiere at NYFF three years ago.

Whether ‎consultants have figured out how to maximize attention and goodwill from a NYFF screening or whether the festival simply has a sharp eye for movies that already were well on their way, the correlation between an NYFF debut and Oscar heat is strong.

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“Steve Jobs,” which focuses on three key moments in its subject’s life, hits theaters Oct. 9; it played Telluride before coming to New York (as “Birdman” did) and hopes to gain momentum at the festival. “Miles Ahead,” meanwhile, which focuses on its own turbulent and even funny period in the jazz legend’s creative life, will open next year, with distributor Sony Pictures Classics seeing 2015 as too packed to toss another entry into the mix.

It is “The Walk” that offers perhaps the most intriguing story line. Opening night has been a slot of some potency (“Pi,” “Phillips” and David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” have occupied it in the past three years). That gives the Sony film a measure of both potential and pressure, heightened by its PG rating and all-audience ambitions.

Made for just $35 million, the film is an Imax 3-D presentation in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the World Trade Center wire-walker Philippe Petit, a man who in the 1970s achieved an unlikely feat through a mix of big thinking and headstrong will. It is both a melancholic elegy to the towers and a more uplifting paean to the power of dreaming.

“I felt that identifying with Philippe’s creative passion is a universal theme,” Zemeckis said in an interview. “Everybody has some kind of muse, whether you’re baking a cake or singing in a choir or writing for a newspaper. You understand that there comes a time when you just have to do it, and I think anyone who does anything creative can identify with the part.”

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NYFF also can reintroduce audiences and tastemakers to features that debuted at another festival. And it can help set documentaries apart, as Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour” did last year with a splashy NYFF world premiere that set it on the course for the best documentary Oscar.

Among the past narrative debuts that will look to get a fresh start at the festival are Todd Haynes’ period lesbian drama “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” about a dystopian world in which non-married people are hunted (like “Carol,” it debuted at Cannes); and “Brooklyn,” the Saoirse Ronan-starring immigrant drama directed by John Crowley.

That last film comes with a certain weight. Adapted by Nick Hornby from a Colm Toibin book, it is being released by Fox Searchlight, the studio behind “Birdman” and “12 Years a Slave” that has won best picture two years running.

Searchlight is looking to give the immigrant tale a charge after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival as many as eight months ago. “It’s one of those films that remind us how ‎great things happen when we begin in a new place,” Michelle Hooper, Searchlight’s executive vice president of marketing, said of the parallels between its themes and its rollout.

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The festival can be a necessary prestige bridge in a season that grows longer every year and sometimes can stretch across the calendar."Lobster,” for instance,” will stop in New York as a way of connecting the early buzz in Cannes to the film’s commercial release, likely early next year.

“It’s important for a film that gets such a strong reception not to go dark,” said Vincent Scordino, the SVP of marketing at Alchemy, the movie’s distributor. “And you can’t overstate the honor and importance of being chosen by this selection committee.” Indeed, “Birdman” used New York in part to that effect, keeping the campaign at a certain simmer after a Venice Film Festival opening in August, enabling it to full boil at just the right moment later in the season.

Docs, meanwhile, will have their own moment, and in somewhat higher world-premiere numbers than in the past. Among those movies screening for the first time are “Everything Is Copy,” journalist Jacob Bernstein’s movie about his late mother, Nora Ephron; “Junun,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s chronicling of a trip to India he took with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood; “The Witness,” James Solomon’s examination of the infamous Kitty Genovese case and the myths that surround it; and “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank,” Laura Israel’s look at the influential photographer and filmmaker.

The festival also will take a night to honor Albert Maysles, the seminal documentarian who died in March and had one of his last films, “Iris,” premiere at the festival last year.

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And Poitras herself will be back, unveiling the early fruits of a new documentary incubator she created called Field of Vision. A number of pieces will be shown from the first batch of movies, including sections of Poitras’ own “Asylum,” about Julian Assange.

The nonfiction movies about famous people offer a complement to the three showcase selections, which this year all look at well-known figures. (Indeed, the subjects of both “The Walk” and “Steve Jobs” have had acclaimed documentaries made about them.)

“All three of the big slots have movies about real people, and two of them are unorthodox biographies, which I think tells you a lot not just about the films but how audiences now are able to handle shifts and tones in registers,” Jones said.

Many of these and other NYFF movies will try to stand out not just from what came before but also from each other, at a gathering that manages the feat of being both glitzy and stripped down.

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“We don’t have a jury, we don’t have prizes and we don’t have a marketplace, and that’s not true of many festivals,” Jones said. “I think we’ve been able to achieve what we have because we’ve stuck to our guns.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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