LOS ANGELES — In a September ritual America’s film industry looks north to Toronto’s annual film festival for help in making sense of its own year-end awards race.
This year the Canadians have their work cut out for them: setting the table for a fall and early winter season in which significantly fewer films are scheduled to be released.
As film professionals from Los Angeles and New York converge on the 34th Toronto International Film Festival next week, they will have dozens of movies and their stars in tow. But they will also bring the makings of what promises to be the strangest awards season in recent memory.
The number of Oscar nominees will be up this year as 10 films, not 5, will get a shot at best picture, thanks to a surprise change in rules governing the Academy Awards.
But the number of films in the thick of the race — and on screens across the country — will be sharply down, unless the sprawling festival, which plans to screen 271 feature-length movies between Sept. 10 and Sept. 19, can somehow change the game.
“The question is, will there be enough movies, really, to make the awards season exciting?” said Bob Berney, co-founder of a new film distributor called Apparition.
Mr. Berney’s company will be in Toronto, doing its best to create excitement with its drama “Bright Star,” a love story about John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne, directed by Jane Campion, with Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in lead roles, and with “The Young Victoria,” about Queen Victoria, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, with Emily Blunt in the lead.
In fact, the Toronto festival did become a game changer last year when a handful of little pictures bounced into prominence there.
In an all-night bidding war, Fox Searchlight Pictures won rights to “The Wrestler,” which made Mickey Rourke a relentless presence through the six-month awards cycle. At the same time, at Toronto Fox Searchlight kicked off its campaign for “Slumdog Millionaire,” the eventual Oscar winner, only weeks after having scooped it up from a faltering Warner Independent Pictures. And Sony Pictures Classics used the festival to set Anne Hathaway on her path to an Oscar nomination as best actress for “Rachel Getting Married.”
Suddenly, an ill-formed Oscar race had contours.
But it will be harder for Toronto work its magic this year, because a financially troubled American film industry is heading into a season that promises to be noticeably short of movies.
Notwithstanding the festival’s full schedule — the number of features being screened in Toronto is actually up about 9 percent from last year — American film companies are currently scheduled to release 40 percent fewer movies between September and December than they did last year, according to a count by Film-releases.com.
The count will rise somewhat, as distributors fill in their schedules, possibly with titles like “Creation,” a love story about Charles Darwin, directed by Jon Amiel, with Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly in lead roles, or “Life During Wartime,” a kaleidoscopic story about relationships from the director Todd Solondz, with Ally Sheedy and Paul Reubens in the cast Both films are looking for buyers in Toronto.
Companies like Summit Entertainment and Fox Searchlight have said they will be looking for movies at the festival. But anything less than a buying frenzy — and there has been no sign of that recently — would leave schedules short of movies as the awards season unfolds.
“I will give you an estimate of 30 percent,” Dora Kappou of Film-releases.com said of her company’s expectation for the decline, taking into consideration last-minute buying.
A schedule compiled by Exhibitor Relations, which does not include the tiniest releases tracked by Film-releases.com, shows about 17 percent fewer films planned through the end of the year than its schedule did at this point last year.
“There’s been a glut,” contended Mr. Berney, who said the drop-off was good for distributors, in that it allows their films extra time and space in the marketplace. Still, the decline might be sharp enough for the audience to feel shorted, especially in New York and Los Angeles, where viewers have sometimes had their choice among as many as two dozen new releases on a single weekend in the fall.
The diminished nature of the season ahead became apparent on Aug. 21, when Paramount Pictures — stung last year by heavy spending on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which never quite found its footing in the awards quest and accompanying box office derby — suddenly bumped Martin Scorsese’s drama “Shutter Island” into next year, moving it out of the current Oscar race altogether.
“It’s an oddity,” James D. Stern, chief executive of Endgame Entertainment, said of the expansion in Oscar nominees precisely as the industry is shrinking. Mr. Stern and his associates will be in Toronto with a romance called “An Education,” set for release in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics on Oct. 9.
Prospects for Mr. Stern’s movie may actually be brightened by the film drought, which has lessened competition, both for ticket sales and for prizes. The movie, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year, has already been mentioned prominently as a contender by Oscar-watchers like incontention.com.For the moment, Mr. Stern said, his hope is that Toronto will do exactly the sort of thing it has done in the past: create some sizzle around a young star — in this case his movie’s Carey Mulligan. “She’s Anne Hathaway, frankly,” he said.