Toronto swoons for Mendes debut, H'wood fare

TORONTO — The 1999 Toronto Film Festival got off to an uncharacteristically sluggish start over the weekend, with few available films stirring excitement among buyers, and most of the buzz emanating from the world or North American premieres of studio-backed pics.

The best-received title of the festival so far is DreamWorks’ “American Beauty,” which has been lavishly praised by both critics and industryites. Miramax’s “The Cider House Rules” also went down well at its press and industry screening, as did Fine Line Features’ public unspooling of its Tibetan soccer comedy “The Cup.”

“Beauty,” the directorial debut of British theater helmer Sam Mendes, stars Kevin Spacey as a sexually frustrated magazine writer who quits his job. The satirical drama’s ensemble cast also includes Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher and Chris Cooper.

On the buying front, Sony Pictures Classics is in final negotiations for “Indochine” director Regis Wargnier’s historical love story, “East-West” (Est-Ouest).

According to sources close to the negotiations, SPC, already a major presence at the fest platforming Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” is set to pay low- to mid-six figures for the French-lingo pic.

Pic stars Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menshikov (“Prisoner of the Mountains”) and Catherine Deneuve.

Set during 1946 in the U.S.S.R., “East-West” concerns a young Russian film director whose French wife must decide if she wants to abandon her husband and child and escape the Stalin-era oppression with a new lover.

The film is being sold by Paris-based UGC Intl., with UGC the pic’s French distrib.

By Sunday, North American acquisitions execs were eyeing a number of other titles, but nothing seemed hot enough to make them reach for their checkbooks.

Fine Line Features, Strand Releasing, Trimark Pictures and Lions Gate Films were chasing Frederic Fonteyne’s French-lingo drama “A Pornographic Affair,” starring Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez. Offers for the film are understood to be in the $100,000-$200,000 range.

Also generating some interest was James D. Stern’s “All the Rage,” co-financed by Newmarket Capital Group and Mutual Film Co. A dark comedy against gun control, it stars Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Jeff Daniels, Bokeem Woodbine, David Schwimmer, Andre Braugher, Anna Paquin, Josh Brolin and Giovanni Ribisi.

In the Perspective Canada section, two pics backed by Alliance Atlantis Pictures stood out: Jeremy Podeswa’s drama “The Five Senses” and Allan Moyle’s comedy “New Waterford Girl.” By Sunday, Fine Line had made an offer for “Senses,” with other companies circling.

But there’s little for buyers to look forward to in the coming week. The most anticipated pics to screen are “The Big Kahuna,” “A Map of the World,” “Forever Mine” and “Sunshine.”

Toronto was also an opportunity for execs to see new versions of Miramax’s “Dogma,” which will go out domestically through Lions Gate Films, and “Happy, Texas,” the minimajor’s high-profile Sundance acquisition.

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