By Christine Kearney
TORONTO (Reuters) - Ben Affleck's political thriller "Argo" and David O. Russell's comedic drama "Silver Linings Playbook" are winning widespread praise at the midpoint of the Toronto International Film Festival, with early sluggish sales beginning to pick up.
Toronto, along with recent festivals in Venice and Telluride, traditionally launches the movie industry's major awards season. Some of the more hyped films heading into the festival have won over critics and audiences, while others have divided film buffs, suggesting possible box office and awards disappointments.
"A bunch of titles go in with hype and then only a couple of them really deliver," said David Laub, co-president of New York based indie film distribution company Oscilloscope.
Laub cited "Argo," and "Silver Linings Playbook" as gaining early awards buzz among the bigger premieres so far. "Now they start their journey to the Oscars - and then some are a bit more muted," he said.
Those that so far haven't quite lived up to their high expectations include several of the eagerly anticipated literary adaptations - "Anna Karenina" and "Midnight's Children" - while "Cloud Atlas," co-directed by Tom Tykwer and "The Matrix Trilogy" sibling team, divided critics with its complex multiple storylines.
"Argo," starring and directed by Ben Affleck, is considered one of the safer bets for awards nominations, including one of the 10 best film Oscar slots and a possible directing nod for Affleck's third effort in a turn away from previous Boston stories "The Town," and "Gone Baby Gone."
Affleck, 40, whose film tells the true story of how the CIA helped smuggle six American diplomats out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis using a fake Hollywood production, declined to speculate about award potential and whether a film that both pokes fun of and celebrates Hollywood might appeal more than usual to Oscar voters.
In making the film, he said, his greatest issues were smooth transitions from the tense Iran scenes to the more humorous moments, which have gained buzz for Alan Arkin playing the role of veteran Hollywood producer.
"How often do you get to make a movie on this subject matter, particularly in a world where some of the war films that had been made had been a little too depressing for audiences over the last 10 years?" Affleck said.
Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" continued to impress critics and audiences in Toronto, especially for its lead actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, who was last seen by audiences in the mockumentary 2010 "I'm Still Here" which chronicled his supposed "retirement" from acting to pursue a hip-hop career.
Neither Hoffman nor Phoenix showed up to the film's press conference and Anderson deflected questions about whether the film was about Scientology, prompting speculation about how it would be promoted come Oscar time in early 2013.
Bill Murray has also gained attention for his turn as Franklin D. Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson," while Jennifer Lawrence has stirred talk of a best actress nomination for "Silver Linings Playbook" as a sexually forward widow fighting depression.
The film, by "The Fighter" director David. O. Russell and centered around a mentally ill man played by Bradley Cooper trying to rebuild his life, is being talked about as a possible contender in several categories.
Among smaller films, Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" has also won over critics.
BUSINESS PICKING UP
From a strong non-fiction lineup, both "The Gatekeepers," about Israeli security agency Shin Bet, and Alex Gibney's "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," about the Catholic church's sex abuse scandals, won enthusiastic audience applause. On the red carpet, Johnny Depp attracted one of the festival's biggest crowds to support "West of Memphis."
Sarah Polley's autobiographical nonfiction film about family secrets "Stories We Tell" was one of the early sales at a festival that saw sluggish business activity in the first half of the festival which started September 6 and ends September 16.
The only early big acquisition title was "The Place Beyond the Pines" by "Blue Valentine" director Derek Cianfrance and starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. It was bought for roughly $2.5 million, according to media reports, and unlike the other films sold the day following its premiere.
Other more recent sales included sex addiction comedy "Thanks for Sharing" starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo and singer Pink in a supporting role; "Imogene" starring Kristen Wiig; and "Crying Game" filmmaker Neil Jordan's "Byzantium."
While sales figures for some still remain secret, prices are way down on the highs of the indie market of the mid-2000s when films like "Little Miss Sunshine" posted much higher levels. But observers said they expected business to pick up by the festival's end and in the weeks following that.
"People aren't rushing to close deals the way they once were, which is common in the last few years," said Laub.
Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said buyers and sellers are slower to make deals in times of more economic uncertainty and as distribution models including theatrical and video-on-demand have been shaken up.
"There are so many (films) where it is really unclear where they are going to fit in the marketplace. That's one of the reasons there is a delay in a lot of these sales," said Barker. "But by the end of the festival there will be many more."
(Reporting By Christine Kearney, Editing by Jill Serjeant and Eric Walsh)