Buyers packed into Toronto's Elgin Theatre Sunday night for the North American premiere of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which arrived at the Fest with a Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival. Aronofsky tried to cool the crowd down, saying, "There's no way we're going to live up to that hype. It's a gentle, small film." French sales company Wild Bunch believed in the film, he said, and if any North American buyer "is interested, I have a phone number for you afterward."
That number belongs to CAA's Micah Green, who will be taking calls through the night as buyers decide how much they are willing to commit to a 2008 late-year release with a pricey Rourke Oscar campaign attached.
Paramount's John Lesher, New Line's Toby Emmerich, Harvey Weinstein, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Overture, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Summit, IFC, Lionsgate and others were huddling afterwards. The likely buyer will be taking a risk on a movie that could win over critics and Academy actors but would be a challenge to bring to market, observers agreed.
There's no question that Rourke delivers a tour-de-force performance as a broken-down wrestler who can put on a show and take a beating with the best of them-- until he suffers a heart attack and has to slow down. He's a master of the wrestling world but can't manage as well his relations with women, such as stripper Marisa Tomei or his daughter, Evan Rachel Wood. Aronofsky lets the story unfold in a straightforward, unvarnished, dramatic way, without pushing too hard for sentimentality or pathos. The movie scored at the Elgin with audiences but buyers were more circumspect afterwards.
With careful, adroit handling--and some marketing dollars--the movie could go all the way. But it is by no means a slam dunk commercially, and with recent examples of punitive Oscar spends behind them, even deep-pocketed distribs, under financial pressure from their corporate parents, are exercising caution here.
Other movies hoping for a sale are also facing uphill sledding, even with top Oscar perennials on board:
2929 entertainment is selling Guillermo Arriaga's directorial debut, The Burning Plain, starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, which picked up some positive notices in Venice, including Time's Richard Corliss. It sounds like Fox Searchlight is considering this one.
New Zealand fable Dean Spanley is slow to get off the ground, but eventually delivers not only a fun turn from Peter O'Toole but Sam Neill in the title role as well. It's about reincarnation. Dean Spanley, it seems, was once a spaniel.
The afterlife also fascinates young Edward (Son of Rambow's Bill Milner) in John Crowley's Is There Anybody There?, which gives Michael Caine a meaty, if predictable, role as an ailing magician fighting against the dying of the light at an old-folks home.
Old folks also populate Lovely Still, a geriatric romance directed by 24-year-old Nik Fackler that has been earning standing ovations here for Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn.
Ireland's Kisses showcases two unknowns picked out of nowhere who give delightful, honest performances as runaways who think they can't stand living at home until they find out what can happen on the street in the big city. The movie also scored at Telluride and is seeking a buyer here, but it's black-and-white, and that severely reduces its ancillary viability. Director Lance Daly asked the audience to hang in with the thick dialect, but I had no trouble without subtitles.
[Photos: Charlize Theron in The Burning Plain; buyers Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia, Arianna Bocco of IFC and Sarah Rose of Picturehouse]
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]