Dramas face tough time at Toronto festival
By Jennifer Kwan
TORONTO (Reuters) - If there is anything Oscar voters love, it is a good drama. But as a key festival stop on the road to Hollywood awards got down to business on Friday, dramas were less on movie screens and more behind the scenes where the film genre is troubled.
The Toronto International Film Festival, which has long been considered a starting point for movie awards -- Oscar winner "Slumdog Millionaire" got a big boost here last year -- opened on Thursday night with Charles Darwin drama "Creation," which came into the event seeking a U.S. distributor.
The festival boasts more than 330 films screening over 10 days, and ahead of opening week about a third of them lacked key distribution, including titles such as Atom Egoyan's "Chloe" and Oliver Parker's "Dorian Gray."
Facing the recession at home, audiences have flocked to escapist fantasies and comedies, causing distributors of the dramas that vie for Oscars to snap up rights for those genres, leaving serious-minded fare in the dust.
Industry players say lovers of good dramas are not gone, nor is the genre dead. They see the issue as cyclical and more a marketing and cost problem than one of creative content.
Still, if you are making movies like 2007's "No Country for Old Men," which earned a best film Oscar, times are tough.
Director Jon Amiel, whose "Creation" tells of Charles Darwin struggling with his theories of evolution in the 1850s, called "drama" the new "five-letter word" in Hollywood.
"If you're making a movie about a dead, bald Englishman, you're not making a movie that even the indie distributors are flocking to buy these days," Amiel said. "There are just many, many movies that American audiences are not going to see."
BOX OFFICE BLUNDERS?
The waning interest can be seen at box offices. Two big hits of the art house market this past summer were war drama "The Hurt Locker," which earned $12 million -- a solid number for a low-budget film but far less than twice the roughly $29 million earned by romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer."
"There's a real conservative attitude (and) dramas are viewed as risky in today's marketplace," said Steven Beer, an entertainment attorney with law firm Greenberg Traurig.
Still, industry players say dramas can lure fans and make money. The key is devising the right production and marketing model that makes sense given today's movie going climate.
In many cases, those marketing strategies call for grass roots campaigns that target key groups, lovers of science and period pieces for a movie such as "Creation," for instance.
Production costs must fall to account for lower box office and declining DVD sales, which have dropped by double-digits on a percentage basis due in large part to competition from other forms of home entertainment.
"These have always been tough movies and they'll always be tough movies. In a tough economic climate perhaps even tougher, which is why those models have to change," said Tom Ortenberg, president of theatrical films at The Weinstein Co.
Industry watcher David Poland of MovieCityNews.com, said the drop in DVD sales had been a key factor in distributors' unwillingness to back expensive dramas but, like the other experts, he noted there remained an appetite for the genre.
Still, distributors remain selective when looking at dramas, and that leaves little room for another breakthrough at Toronto 2009 such as "Slumdog" proved to be last year when it was acquired by Fox Searchlight ahead of awards season.
"You're going to have a lot of buyers coming to Toronto that are a lot more cautious than in the past, and I think that that's something that is different," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)