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Arnie Hammer and Nate Park star in the much-hyped slave rebellion epic The Birth of a Nation.
Arnie Hammer and Nate Park star in the much-hyped slave rebellion epic The Birth of a Nation.

BARRY HERTZ

After a dry summer movie season, will TIFF deliver salvation? Add to ...

How do you solve a problem like TIFF?

Every year, the festival aims for a carefully calculated programming slate that’s equal parts Oscar bait, high-gloss celebrity, art-house prestige and dutiful CanCon. This complicated formula works better some years than others.

Last fall, for instance, delivered the highs of Spotlight, The Martian, Brooklyn, Sleeping Giant and Room, as well a fair share of high-profile duds (Demolition, Black Mass, Freeheld, About Ray, I Saw the Light … I could go on, but it would be cruel).

So what to expect this year, as all eyes are on the Toronto International Film Festival to deliver us from the evil that was an especially dry summer movie season? As I write, festival programmers are busy finalizing the lineup, a good portion of which will be revealed Tuesday morning at TIFF’s first press conference of the year.

Before that happens, though, it’s become tradition among fest watchers to play a guessing game – one whose answers will help map out the industry for the rest of the year, and beyond.

First, there’s the always fraught opening-night film. Although it appears to be a prestigious slot, history has proven that opening night is for homegrown charity cases, studio bargaining chips and go-nowhere flops.

While last year’s selection of Demolition seemed spot-on – a Canadian director in Jean-Marc Vallée, a legitimate star in Jake Gyllenhaal – the drama only earned a polite reception, and was quickly forgotten about until it opened in theatres seven long months later. This year is a chance for TIFF to finally overhaul opening night, though whether the fest will adopt any radical changes – say, programming a truly independent, even micro-budgeted Canadian film that could benefit from the exposure – is doubtful.

Instead, I’d place my bets on something like Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s screwball dramedy set in 1950s Hollywood. It has an up-and-coming star in Alden Ehrenreich, a director known for snaring media attention, and a plot and milieu that will surely comfort the industry players who TIFF must so readily appease.

Plus, Beatty and his producers are likely so eager to shake off the film’s musty scent – the project initially bounced between studios, and finished shooting a year and a half ago – that they would happily accept a spot that, though it has its advantages, is burdened by an infamous legacy. (A second guess: Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, which satisfies both the Canadian and celebrity elements – and might actually be good.)

In terms of the bigger game, TIFF will likely be courting films already earning awards buzz, including Ang Lee’s war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; Denzel Washington’s latest directorial effort Fences; David Frankel’s Collateral Beauty, starring Will Smith and Keira Knightley; James Ponsoldt’s The Circle, based on the Dave Eggers novel and starring Tom Hanks; Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire; Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, starring Brie Larson; John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, starring perennial Oscar bridesmaid Michael Keaton; Brad Pitt’s Netflix satire War Machine; Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train, starring Emily Blunt; and Terrence Malick’s Weightless, starring Michael Fassbender, who will be headlining this year’s TIFF Soiree, an annual fundraising effort (though it is a Malick film, so who knows when the thing will see the light of day).

Some movies can already be more or less ruled out, including Clint Eastwood’s biopic Sully (it opens Sept. 9, just one day after the festival opens); Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans (also starring Fassbender, but opening wide Sept. 2); Morten Tyldum’s Passengers (the Jennifer Lawrence-Chris Pratt vehicle doesn’t open until Dec. 21, and Sony likely wants to hold this one closer to its chest); and Martin Scorsese’s Silence (its release is undated, and Scorsese typically premieres his features in New York).

And then there are the holdovers from Sundance and Cannes, which often float back up to the awards conversation in Toronto. Surely TIFF is aiming to grab Kenneth Lonergan’s universally acclaimed Sundance entry Manchester by the Sea; Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper; Nathan Morlando’s Mean Dreams; Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear; Jeff Nichols’s Loving; Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake; Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann; Xavier Dolan’s polarizing It’s Only the End of the World; and Nate Parker’s heavily hyped slave-rebellion epic The Birth of a Nation.

Whatever the festival decides, though, TIFF’s programming will dictate how the rest of the film industry’s year plays out. Here’s hoping for more Room, and less Demolition.

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Follow on Twitter: @hertzbarry

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