TORONTO (Reuters) - The stars are here but the Oscar hype is on low volume at the Toronto film festival this year as major studios hold their promotional fire for movies looking to win awards until later in the year.
Brad Pitt turned out on the first weekend to launch the comedy “Burn After Reading” by the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers that opens in theaters on Friday and Grammy winner Alicia Keys walked the red carpet for the drama “The Secret Life of Bees” due out in October.
But the feeling among industry watchers at the 2008 festival, which reached its midpoint on Monday, has been that it lacks the high-profile Oscar movies of recent years.
Reasons vary and include consolidation among makers of art house films. But sources all say one key factor is at work: last year Hollywood got burned, by itself.
“It’s a thin festival. The studios with movies that are considered contenders this year didn’t bring them,” said David Poland, who runs the Web site Movie City News.
Together with the Venice film festival and a smaller event in Telluride, Colorado, the Toronto International Film Festival has in recent years been a key launch pad for movies hoping to win Oscars, which are given out in February.
Industry insiders and critics attend all three and a strong showing can build momentum that propels films to Oscars and other honors, a likely route to fame and box office fortune. A key example is 2005’s gay cowboy romance “Brokeback Mountain.”
Seeing a trend, Universal Pictures last year brought “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” starring Cate Blanchett to the Toronto festival and Warner Bros. pushed Pitt and Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
“Elizabeth” took in only $16 million at North American box offices and “Jesse James” a mere $4 million.
Another was the war film “In the Valley of Elah,” which brought in just $7 million in North America. “Elah” was from director Paul Haggis, who won an Oscar with the race relations drama “Crash,” another previous Toronto festival title.
All three films suffered from mixed reviews, in part, because critics saw through the hype, industry watchers said.
So this year, the major opening weekend title was the gala debut of “Burn After Reading,” which distributor Focus Features, the specialty unit of Universal, is releasing before this year’s Oscar race begins in late September and October.
Oscar watchers say Focus is keen on its “Milk,” starring Sean Penn as San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk. It is due in theaters in November.
Also on Friday, Fox Searchlight, a unit for 20th Century Fox, debuted the drama “The Secret Life of Bees” starring young Dakota Fanning but asked TV reporters to hold their interviews until October, just ahead of its official release.
Some early titles were winning fans but mostly for performances, including Greg Kinnear as the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper who battles automakers for control over his patent in “Flash of Genius.”
Mickey Rourke got strong reviews as a faded sports star in “The Wrestler” and Anne Hathaway earned praise as a recovering drug addict in “Rachel Getting Married.”
In a sign of just how un-Hollywood this year’s Toronto festival is, at Friday’s after-party for the “Rachel Getting Married” premiere, guests were treated to free booze as usual but costs were curbed.
Instead of an open bar, they got drinks tickets -- and only two, at that. Oscar would be shocked.
Editing by Janet Guttsman and John O'Callaghan