Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's epic about the enduring romance between two ranch hands, rode into the 30th annual Toronto film festival known only as ''the gay cowboy movie.'' ''Prior to anyone seeing it, I think people were expecting gunslingers just wearing chaps!'' cracked costar Heath Ledger. ''But we always knew it was just a pure story of love, and we knew the film would defeat that title.'' And it did, judging from the buzz from the premiere screenings, which quickly established the movie as the fest's first audience crush.
But for every triumph like Brokeback Mountain, for every gaggle of cocktail-sipping industry people debating the Oscar potential of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in the biopic Capote or the merits of Steven Soderbergh's lo-fi Bubble, there were those who may have left the heady front half of the fest (which wraps Sept. 17 and has become a crucial launchpad for prestigious fall films) feeling more broken than backed.
Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) unspooled a 135-minute cut of his Orlando Bloom-Kirsten Dunst dramedy Elizabethtown. And despite Paramount's announcement before the first press screening that the director was still piecing together a shorter version for the Oct. 14 theatrical release, negative word of mouth spread rapidly through the festival and onto the Internet. ''I thought this would be a place to let the longer one fly and see what it felt like,'' explained Crowe, who quickly left the festival to return to the editing room and lock down a final version.
At least Crowe already has a distribution deal. By mid-festival, two other high-profile directors (Guy Ritchie with Revolver and Terry Gilliam with Tideland) faced the daunting challenge of trying to score a U.S. distributor after generating bad buzz. Even actors who aren't victims of bad buzz can feel the pressure, such as Charlize Theron, the headliner of Niki Caro's largely well-received mining drama North Country. ''I can't imagine as a filmmaker what it's like to set your baby out into the world and then have people not get it,'' she said.
If there was one film that sailed into town on a wave of good will, it was the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, seen by some early audiences as a candidate to follow in the Oscar footsteps of Ray, last year's Toronto sensation. Star Joaquin Phoenix found a simple way to cope with high expectations. ''I haven't seen Ray,'' he said, after getting down on his knees to suck fresh air from the one small open window in his junket hotel room. ''I haven't even seen Walk the Line.''
On the deal-making front, Hollywood wondered if departing Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein would scoop up films for his new company. Yet sightings were rare. ''I don't think he's here,'' said longtime Miramax poster girl Gwyneth Paltrow, in town to promote Proof. ''I feel like I would know it if he was. He harasses me when we're in the same city.'' In fact, Weinstein jetted in and out inconspicuously for short bursts of festival action.
The big acquisitions fuss of the first part of the fest involved Thank You for Smoking, an edgy political satire about a cigarette lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart) written and directed by 27-year-old breakout Jason Reitman (son of filmmaker Ivan). Paramount Classics felt burned when a purported handshake deal disintegrated overnight and the movie ended up with Fox Searchlight (which also embraced Bart Freundlich's Trust the Man and Dave Chappelle's Block Party, a concert-comedy documentary directed by Michel Gondry). Smoking producer David O. Sacks even fired off a press release stressing Paramount Classics never inked a physical pact, as he says Searchlight did. But Paramount Classics' co-president Ruth Vitale says: ''We firmly believe that we own the movie and closed the deal.'' Stay tuned. The skirmish may have provided industry attendees with a hot topic for party chatter, but Toronto has never really been as intense an acquisitions market as some other major festivals.
But don't tell the stars the climate was tepid. Everybody from Dakota Fanning and Eva Longoria to Tommy Lee Jones and Tommy Chong descended on the city to take part in one of North America's biggest media junkets. Even Liza Minnelli was swanning around town in purple sequins, presenting her restored 1972 concert film Liza With a Z. When asked how a successful premiere at the Toronto film festival affects business, Minnelli theatrically threw her hands up in the air. ''That's a marketing question, and I'm not into that!'' she laughed. ''Holy Toledo, I'm just into the fun of being here!''
(Additional reporting by Neil Drumming)