By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The red carpets have rolled up and the festival awards are adjudicated, and now comes the deluge of small and independent films for fall viewing and Oscar baiting.
Unlike last year when "12 Years a Slave," and "Gravity," emerged from the Toronto, Venice and Telluride festivals as solid front-runners for awards, the fate of the 2014 class is more uncertain. There are many acclaimed films on the horizon, but the race for February's Academy Awards is wide open.
One strong contender is Toronto's top winner "The Imitation Game," the biopic of British World War Two code breaker Alan Turing, who was later persecuted for being gay. Turing is played by the popular Benedict Cumberbatch, a casting choice that likely helped the movie win the public-voted best film prize.
Toronto's victor last year, "12 Years a Slave," won the Oscar best picture in a showdown with "Gravity."
"It is a great place to present a film, said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony's art-house unit Sony Pictures Classics, which showcased nine films at North America's top festival.
"The presentation, the aura, the atmosphere - the best place for critics and exhibitors to see the film with the kind of responsive audience."
He and co-president Tom Bernard presented Sundance winner "Whiplash," about a jazz drummer obsessed with perfection, and Cannes favorite "Foxcatcher" starring an unrecognizable Steve Carell as a du Pont family scion who murders a wrestling champ. Both films have received critical acclaim and Sony waited to release them in the fall to increase their awards potential.
The Weinstein Co., the awards season powerhouse behind "The Imitation Game," also came out of Toronto with momentum for "St. Vincent," starring Bill Murray as a hard-living curmudgeon and unlikely mentor to a boy. It won the second runner-up prize.
'A SPECTACULAR FALL'
Other films that stood out at Toronto were "The Theory of Everything," a biopic of British physicist Stephen Hawking and Reese Witherspoon's "Wild," based on the best-selling memoir of a woman fighting her demons on a long wilderness trek.
Then there is "Birdman," starring Michael Keaton as a faded movie star trying to jump-start his career in a biting statement about American celebrity. It opened Venice to rave reviews.
"I think you are going to have a spectacular fall," said Barker. "It's very regrettable that everybody waits to the fall because some are not going to survive at the box office."
A new player to the scene, Saban Films, is undaunted by the competition. The distributor set up by media mogul Haim Saban is releasing its first film "The Homesman," a Western directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones and acquired in Cannes, the same day as "Foxcatcher," on Nov. 14.
"Some people might call that dangerous," said Saban Films President Bill Bromiley. But, he added, "the more something else succeeds, the more it drives people to go to the movies and allows them to open up their minds to other choices."
Despite the successful year for smaller films including coming-of-age tale "Boyhood" and Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel," the market for buying films in Toronto was subdued.
"People are not looking at this place as a market like they used to," said Bernard, who noted that Sony Pictures Classics was much more active at Sundance and Cannes.
Bromiley, who acquired three films there, called it "a very mediocre market."
"I think people were looking forward to some films that didn't turn out quite as good as we had hoped," he said.
(Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Grant McCool)