TORONTO - Most people became aware of Paul Schrader's micro-budget erotic thriller "The Canyons" after reading a gawking New York Times magazine piece that portrayed the Lindsay Lohan project as such a gory disaster-in-slow-motion, readers could be forgiven if they thought they were reading about the film in the obituary pages.
But to hear Schrader tell it, this seemingly unflattering story in fact marked the moment when his crowd-funded film blossomed to life.
"You're kind of stirring the pot. You're making a microbudget film — (but) so are 10,000 other people," said the 67-year-old "American Gigolo" director and "Raging Bull" scribe in a recent telephone interview.
"So how are you going to get your head above the crowd? Oh, you're going to cast someone from adult culture (porn star James Deen) and someone from celebrity culture (Lohan). You're going to get Paul Schrader. You're going to put polarizing elements together. (Writer) Brett (Easton Ellis) polarizes a lot of people. Certainly Lindsay does.
"You are inviting trouble. You can't be surprised when you reap the whirlwind. But once you get that profile, you hope that you can move onto the next storyline. The first is Brett and Paul make the movie, the second is the Lindsay Lohan horror show, and the third is: 'Hey, it's pretty good after all.'"
As the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off this week, hundreds of carefully crafted films will compete for the transient attention of smartphone-pawing industry types, bleary-eyed journalists and some movie-loving members of the public.
In that environment, positive buzz is perhaps the most elusive and sought-after commodity there is. But for every unearthed gem like "Silver Linings Playbook" or "Slumdog Millionaire" that can capture that upbeat chatter on a large scale, there will be films so apparently noxious and shoddy as to inspire fevered gossip of the opposite tone.
But as films in a crowded landscape struggle to gain notice, how damaging is bad buzz, really? Is it better that people are talking about a film at all, even if they're doing so in snickering, dismissive tones?
Recent results certainly indicate that buzz, positive or negative, is not a foolproof bellweather for commercial success. Consider the case of two of the summer's most breathlessly hyped science-fiction films: "Elysium" and "Pacific Rim."
The former was the supposedly hotly anticipated sophomore film from "District 9" director Neill Blomkamp and arrived with magazine covers, rock-steady geek cred and a talented, starry cast (including Matt Damon and Jodie Foster) as well as mostly positive critical notices. Then it crashed to Earth with ho-hum box-office receipts, and is now looking unlikely to come close to recouping its budget on domestic grosses.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Guillermo del Toro's creatures-vs.-machines action behemoth "Pacific Rim" was prefaced by a savvy viral marketing scheme and a buzz-building strategy that included an early screening for taste-making celebs (including rapper Kanye West, who announced with characteristic bluster that the film was "easily one of (his) favorite movies of all time"). And yet, in North America at least, "Pacific Rim" was a massive commercial disappointment.
At the other extreme? Several critically derided films have breezed to summer success, including "Grown Ups 2" (with its seven per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), "We're the Millers" and "Now You See Me."
Even if there isn't a direct correlation between advance chatter and eventual commercial returns, studios are now going to increasingly great lengths to control the message about their films. During the Toronto film festival, it's become more and more common for studios to shove mandatory non-disclosure contracts in front of journalists prior to press screenings, forms that typically dictate Twitter silence and prohibit early reviews.
The trouble is, attempts to steer, shape or incite hype typically fail.
"I don't think anybody can control buzz — I think that's why it's buzz. It's impossible to control," said TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey in a recent interview, laughing.
"Marketers can try all they want, filmmakers can try all they want, but this thing has a life of its own. Nobody can define it, that's why everybody's chasing after it."
For those on the creative side, the ephemeral nature of this kind of chatter is frustrating. It's impossible to combat a general impression that a piece of work is or isn't worth seeing.
All they can do is hope that audiences check out a film even if they've heard whispers that it isn't very good.
"I think a movie is going to live and die by the materials," said two-time Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg, who released the action flick "2 Guns" this summer to modest success.
"The only thing that really gets me to go see a movie in this day and age is by seeing the trailer or seeing the 15- or 30-second spot that interests me.... (But) the problem is the media is going after movies more now than ever. I mean, every summer there's movies that succeed and movies that fail. But there's so much emphasis and so much attention being paid to the movies that are failing."
If there's a weak correlation between box-office results and critical consensus or pre-release social media tittering, it might be because moviegoers still put the most stock in the opinions of people they actually know.
Old-fashioned word of mouth — in the literal sense — could still hold sway.
"I went to see 'The Heat' this summer, which I had heard is not good, and I went to see it and it was awesome," said Wiebke von Carolsfeld, director of the — yes, buzzy — Canadian-Irish film "Stay," which is screening at this year's festival.
"So I've actually been telling everybody it's an awesome film.... So the best thing is trying to get your word out there and talk about it."
And given the cacophony of opinion that tends to emanate from the Internet, it can sometimes be hard to conclusively determine the reputation of a film or TV show before it's released.
"There are people who love it and people that hate it and in the new world, everyone's got an equal voice — you have to find a way to tune it out," said "Arrested Development" creator Mitchell Hurwitz, whose madcap comedy recently released its long-awaited fourth season on Netflix only to spawn endless Internet debate.
"I've now been in a few articles since the show relaunched and read the comments on the website underneath the article and they're just devastating. Every once in a while, somebody really defends you or really loves the material but after all is said and done, it's 200 people probably writing those things."
Then there's the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.
That hardly seems to hold true, though. Consider Ryan Gosling's grim kaleidoscope of carnage "Only God Forgives," whose Cannes debut inspired walk-outs, booing and scathing notices from outraged critics. It also inspired widespread international coverage, but the so-so returns from its limited theatrical release indicated that even that press coverage failed to inspire much curiosity in audiences.
"I think if the publicity is, 'this movie is terrible,' that's not good," Bailey said with a laugh. "But if the publicity is something controversial that's not necessarily positive, then sure, that can certainly help a film."
Well, Schrader was betting on that when he gleefully invited the rubber-necking masses to ogle his supposed cinematic mess.
Though "The Canyons" has opened in select theatres, Schrader and his team were counting on video-on-demand returns to boost its financial fortunes — and wanted to make sure they secured an audience with some urgency, perhaps before a new type of buzz could take form and spread.
"There's such a buzz factor around the film, it was going to get pirated to death anyway. So one of the challenges was, we didn't want the film to be seen before we could monetize it — because there are a lot of people who are going to hate this film who already this hate film, who don't need to see it to hate it," he said.
"We (were) hoping that we had must-see VOD. If you don't see this, you're not going to be part of the conversation next week. And this has all been designed with that in mind."
Of course, once that figurative curtain comes down, all that buzz just becomes noise in the distance.
"You also have to remember, buzz can be wrong as well," Bailey said. "The buzz that can be generated before people have seen a movie can be based on things that are just not accurate to the genuine experience of the film, whether that's a trailer that doesn't quite work ... or the casting decisions people don't like. And then you see the movie and if you're at least open-minded, your opinion should begin to change.
"So I think buzz is important and exciting and influential up until the movie starts rolling, and after that point it doesn't matter."
With files from Canadian Press reporters Victoria Ahearn, Adrian Lee and Nelson Wyatt.
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