NEW YORK — When a movie first comes in contact with an audience, strange things can happen. Take, for instance, the case of “Dolemite,” Rudy Ray Moore’s classic 1975 Blaxploitation film.
A shambling, cheaply made, mostly non-professional production seemed surely headed for the dustbin before a crowded theatre got a look at it — and loved it. A cult sensation was born.
The story of that quixotic movie, and of Moore’s whole-body transformation into his famous pimp alter ego, is told in Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name.” Led by a radiant performance by a rejuvenated Eddie Murphy, it’s a loving portrait of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants filmmaking and the unpredictable, transformative nature of movie theatres.
“Dolemite Is My Name” — along with 132 other world premieres — will make its own collision with moviegoers later this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Beginning Thursday, some 245 films are set to unspool in Toronto, North America’s largest film festival — a red-carpeted omnibus of nearly all the fall’s biggest movies.
“I’m curious what an audience of film lovers will think. At least for me, it’s a love letter to that spirit of guerrilla filmmaking and independent filmmaking,” says Brewer, who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, making shorts, as he says, with a pawn shop-bought video camera.
Of course, the theatrical experience exalted in Toronto is under siege from a number of directions, among them Netflix, which releases some films for a shortened window in theatres and others directly to its streaming platform. For all its celebration of another age of moviemaking, “Dolemite Is My Name” is a Netflix release — an irony Brewer says isn’t lost on the streaming company.
“It was perhaps different from some of their other movies that maybe they would have been inspired to release theatrically. It’s not so much like ‘Roma’ where you’re like, ‘Oh, I wish I could see it on a large screen,'” says Brewer, whose film will open in theatres Oct. 4. “What they were seeing is, ‘Oh my God, we’ve never seen crowds react this way.'”
Coming close on the heels of the Venice and Telluride festivals, Toronto differs from those launching pads in one dramatic aspect: It has a city teeming with real audiences. Actual ticket-buying people, not just well-dressed insiders and critics. That has made TIFF, now in its 44th year, not just an Oscar-season bellwether but a vital proving ground for those films first appearing — among them “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” ”Knives Out,” ”Harriet,” ”Jojo Rabbit” — and those that have already garnered warm notices in Telluride and Venice, including “Joker,” ”A Marriage Story,” ”Ford v. Ferrari,” ”Waves” and “The Two Popes.”
“You’re not just screening for a room full of critics and agents and producers, but you get a reaction from an audience that represents a little more of how the world might respond to your movie. That’s exciting,” says Destin Daniel Cretton, whose “Just Mercy” is one of the festival’s most anticipated premieres. “Especially for this film, which at its core we definitely made for everybody.”
“Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan as activist-lawyer Bryan Stevenson, won’t be released until Dec. 25. But for many films, especially those expected to contend for Academy Awards, the already-truncated awards season (the Oscars will be held Feb. 9) means a sped-up race. And Toronto has regularly been an important gateway. Last year’s contentious best picture winner, “Green Book,” premiered at TIFF where it won the festival’s top honour: the People’s Choice Award.
As proof of the significance of Toronto audiences, every Toronto audience-award winner in the past decade has scored a best picture nomination.
The festival reflects the diverse city of Toronto, says Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the festival. This year’s program features 36% films directed by women, a rate higher than many other major film festivals. And while festivals like Venice have programmed films by controversial filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Nate Parker, Toronto has charted a different path, making inclusivity a focal point.
“We’re interested in how cinema reflects the whole variety, the gamut of human experience. You get that if you’re able to show films from 84 different countries, as we do this year, and a wide variety of perspectives,” says Bailey. “When we’re only seeing a limited range of points of view, it just becomes less interesting as film.”
Kasi Lemmons, director of the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet,” says Toronto is the perfect festival for her film. Lemmons will be returning to the festival — and the same theatre — where her “Eve’s Bayou” made such an impressive debut 22 years ago.
As shocking as it may sound, “Harriet,” which Focus Features will release Nov. 1, is the first major film made about the Underground Railroad heroine.
“To me, it became kind of a holy task,” says Lemmons. “I did seven months of pure research where I read every single thing about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. I came to have a close relationship with this character. This was the most vivid relationship I’ve ever had with a character. It was a very profound experience. It brought a lot of beauty and light into my life.”
A similar life-altering journey accompanied the making of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” for Marielle Heller, who spent years absorbing the sensitive teachings of her subject.
“I’m curious about how people will feel about the movie because it’s not a traditional biopic,” says Heller, whose movie is centred on a journalist (Matthew Rhys) visiting Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). “You can’t actually really have Mr. Rogers as the lead of a movie because he’s too perfect and without conflict it doesn’t really work. This is really about this relationship between this journalist and him, and it’s sort of a relationship with our own cynicism and with being faced with a much more optimistic force of nature.”
There are hundreds more filmmakers coming to Toronto, too, all with some mix of giddiness and anxiety about how the festival audiences will greet their film. In an age where so many encounters are filtered through digital mediums, that instantaneous connection between moviegoers and movie can feel increasingly special.
“I just feel like I’m waiting for Christmas,” says Rian Johnson, who’ll be at TIFF with the murder mystery “Knives Out.” ”This is a movie that was designed to see with a big crowd. I’m really looking forward to sitting down with that audience in Toronto and feeling the energy.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
For complete coverage of the fall film season, visit: www.apnews.com/FallFilms
Jake Coyle, The Associated Press