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Blame Canada: The Toronto Film Festival

Oscar hype for ‘American Beauty’ began at the Canadian film showings

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Why should you care about the Toronto International Film Festival? Try this: American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, and Boys Don’t Cry. All three of those films unspooled in Toronto last fall, and all three went on to gobble up the top Academy Awards seven months later.

Is it any wonder that the friendly, genteel Canadian fest has turned into a coming-out party — or, in local patois, coming-oot — for future belles of the Oscar ball? From Sept. 7 to 16, major studios and indies alike made the great flight north to flaunt their fare, praying to get a jump on the crucial fall buzz. ”It’s the most important season for serious dramas,” says Artisan CEO Amir Malin. ”It’s a great launchpad when you have the goods.”

DreamWorks flew into town as the reigning champion of the ”goods.” After Toronto-borne buzz led American Beauty to five Oscars last year, the studio came back to its lucky launching ground with two promising films, the just-released Almost Famous and October’s political potboiler The Contender. Ask about the Oscar gambit and DreamWorks diplomatically demurs: ”Anytime you have a movie opening in mid-September that you think will survive the onslaught of critics and media in Toronto, it’s a very good place to put a movie,” says the studio’s marketing chief, Terry Press. Look closer, though, and you’ll notice that Almost Famous is following the American Beauty battle plan: The studio brought Famous to Toronto just as the movie was gearing up for its Beauty-proven platform release (starting on 131 select screens and slowly going wide), and made sure everyone and a Mountie knew about director Cameron Crowe’s rock reminiscence by throwing a second-night party that turned into the hottest ticket in Canada. (In the ultimate nod to the golden age of classic rock, star Kate Hudson toted along boyfriend Chris Robinson from the stuck-in-the-’70s Black Crowes.)

DreamWorks held another mondo bash to lobby for The Contender, yet Press refuses to start handicapping Oscar odds. (But we will: Bank on possible nominations for Frances McDormand in Famous and The Contender‘s Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, and Gary Oldman.) ”Who knows what will come out between now and the end of the year?” she says. ”And to refresh people’s memories, the road to the Oscars for American Beauty was up and down the whole way. One minute it was in, the next minute it was too cynical for the Academy.”

Curiously, festival-circuit heavyweight Miramax remained quiet, showcasing just three films, only one of which — Mark Wahlberg’s The Yards — was in English. Miramax co-emperor Harvey Weinstein stopped by for a single day. Studio spokesperson Marcy Granata explained that most of the studio’s Oscar hopefuls, including Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses and Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, weren’t finished in time. But ”many of our recent Best Picture nominees were also not ready for Toronto,” she says, ”including Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love.” So there.