TORONTO — While the film Death of a President garnered headlines, it was a family-friendly movie that took the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

The success of Bella, the directorial debut of Mexican-American Alejandro Monteverde, surprised not only Hollywood, but festival organizers as well.

And its own coming into being defied many odds.

The 90-minute feature follows the developing relationship between a former Mexican soccer star-turned New York chef and a waitress who finds she is keenly missing the intimacy, support and peace that only a family can provide. The events take place over the course of 24 hours.

“The film is about how one day in New York City changed three people’s lives forever,” said co-producer Sean Wolfington of Philadelphia, who helped finance the film. “They discover that sometimes it takes losing it all to finally appreciate the things that truly matter.”

An unlikely combination of Mexicans and financiers came together to create the film. The Mexicans are Monteverde, actor Eduardo Verastegui and producer Leo Severino. The financiers are Wolfington, his wife, Anna, and his uncle, Eustace, who invested in the first-time feature filmmakers without having any experience in the business. They produced the film along with Denise Pinckley, who was recognized by Variety magazine as one of the top 10 producers to watch.

Together, they own and run Metanoia Films, a production company whose goal is to create meaningful films that matter.

“We want to create films that not only entertain, but inspire,” said Wolfington. “Films that don’t just make money but make a difference”

The Metanoia team filmed the movie in only 24 days in New York City, shooting as many as eight script pages per day — far more than the average. Verastegui, who is known as the “Brad Pitt of Latin America,” plays the lead — an international soccer star who crosses paths with Emmy-winning actress Tammy Blanchard, who also appears in the upcoming film The Good Shepherd with Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon.

Said Wolfington: “It was the first time for all of us — the writer, director, producer, composer, cinematographer, and financer.”

Wolfington describes his own involvement as somewhat out of character.

“I’m in real estate and technology,” he said. “I’m not prone to investing in something that’s high risk with an uncertain return. Every logical part of me said, ‘Don’t do it.’”

Yet, everyone involved in the film shared the company’s mission.

“Each person involved believed that this was a special film and took a leap of faith,” said Wolfington. “The lead actor, the director and the lead actress all had other projects they could have done, but they all felt they were supposed to do this film.”

Wolfington also enlisted the assistance of a friend — Steve McEveety, producer of Braveheart, We Were Soldiers and The Passion of the Christ.

“When I first told him about the project, he told me to ‘run for the hills,’” said Wolfington. “Then, after he saw the film, he loved it and cried and agreed to help us market it. He has been our guardian angel.”

It’s McEveety’s first film since The Passion. He served as executive producer on the project and is helping to bring this film to the network of faith-based entities for which he screened The Passion two years ago.

Many people cautioned the group about shooting in New York City.

“They told us you can’t shoot the film in New York on a very low budget,” said Wolfington. “They said it’s impossible to shoot in because it’s so uncontrollable.”  

Yet they did, completing the project on-budget within 24 days.

For Wolfington, that was one of several “signs that we were on the right road.”

“Another confirmation was getting into the Toronto Film Festival,” he said.

       

New Wave

For many people, the time is right for family-friendly films like Bella. Movie-goers and even theater owners are fed up with what Hollywood is offering. So upset by the lack of decent films available, Greg Boardman of Hoopeston, Ill., shut down his double-screen Lorraine theater for two weeks in late September rather than show films such as Beerfest, The Covenant, and Jackass 2.

“The movies are so miserable,” said Boardman. “I just didn’t think I should use my high-quality facilities to show people vomiting on screen.” He said he would close the theater again if faced with a similar selection of films.

But Bella seems to be part of a new wave of decent films and efforts to make them. Some of that effort may be attributed to the success of Mel Gibson’s Passion, which broke box office records. Sony just released Facing the Giants, a faith-based football film, and FoxFaith, a new religious-oriented film division, just opened its first film, Love’s Abiding Joy. On Dec. 1, New Line Cinema is releasing The Nativity Story, which many have described as a prequel to The Passion of the Christ.

Further, veteran Hollywood executive David Kirkpatrick has founded Good News Holdings and is working on adapting Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt for the screen. And Chronicles of Narnia fans await Prince Caspian, Walt Disney’s 2008 release in the multi-film series.

In Toronto, Bella beat out several films with far more prominent actors, including All the King’s Men with Sean Penn and Bobby, a film about Robert Kennedy featuring an all-star ensemble cast.

The festival has an impressive track record.

“The Toronto Film Festival is known as a place for studies to launch their films to be considered during awards season,” said Denny Alexander, manager of communications for the festival. “Films in the festival often go on to win awards.”

Indeed.

The People’s Choice Award is often an indicator of future Academy Award nominations. Past recipients include best picture winners such as Chariots of Fire, Life Is Beautiful and Hotel Rwanda. Last year’s winner Tsotsi won an Oscar for best foreign-language film.

Wolfington described the win as a “miracle.”

“The award is a confirmation of what everyone believed,” said Wolfington. “Everyone involved with this was doing it as a labor of love, and it shows on the screen.”

Their next goal is to find the right distributor. Metanoia has received offers from several distributors and plans to pick a partner soon. They are hopeful for a 2007 release in theaters.

Those involved hope Bella might do what Chariots of Fire did 25 years ago. The little-known independent $5 million British film, also by a first-time director and featuring unknown actors, surprised everyone by winning an Oscar for best picture over the $35-million star-studded Reds. Perhaps history will repeat itself.

        Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.