Bye-bye big boys?

Distrib exex eye Toronto with trepidation

A huge international cast of filmmakers will be standing by today as acquisitions execs come prospecting for product on opening day of the 25th annual Toronto Film Festival.

But storm clouds have been brewing in the specialty film market. While Toronto has long outshone most international fests as a hotbed of Hollywood’s acquisitions, specialty filmmakers seeking distribution are now facing an uphill battle.

Box office in that sector of the market is down by nearly 20% since the start of the summer. And despite the sharp decline in arthouse screens nationwide, the market is saturated with the sort of arthouse fare that comes out of Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. Few of these pics have grossed more than $1 million.

“The business of specialty films is in the worst shape in years,” Miramax L.A. prexy Mark Gill said. “There are too many films and too many people doing it.”

But these factors have yet to shake the confidence of most buyers arriving in Toronto this week. “The overall availability of product appears to be strong and high-volume,” Fine Line exec veep Rachael Horovitz said.

As always, there’s a short list of hot pics among the festival premieres. English-language titles that made the cut this year include StudioCanal’s “The Weight of Water,” starring Sean Penn and Sarah Polley; pic marks Kathryn Bigelow’s first film since “Strange Days” in 1995.

Barbara Kopple will also present the world premiere of her Woodstock documentary “My Generation,” while her seminal 1977 coal miner’s docu “Harlan County, USA” unspools as part of the festival’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Also debuting are StudioCanal’s “Chasing Sleep,” a thriller starring Jeff Daniels; Myriad Pictures’ “Deeply,” starring Kirsten Dunst, newly hot thanks to “Bring It On”; Michael Corrente’s “A Shot at Glory,” starring Robert Duvall; Michael Radford’s “Dancing at the Blue Iguana,” starring Daryl Hannah and Jennifer Tilly and produced by Moonstone Entertainment; and “The Law of Enclosures,” a drama based on the Dale Peck novel and starring Polley and Diane Ladd.

Fest-tested fare

Toronto, running Sept. 7-16, will also serve as a second look for a number of films that had their first unspooling just days before the festival’s start. Among these are “Maelstrom,” a French-lingo drama that preemed at the Montreal Film Festival, and “The Last Resort,” a thriller that received high marks at the Edinburgh and Venice film fests.

Other anticipated Toronto titles seen first in Venice include Stephen Frears’ “Liam,” starring Ian Hart; “Suspicious River,” starring Molly Parker and directed by Lynne Stopkewich; Iranian drama “The Circle”; and the Australian erotic drama “The Goddess of 1967.”

On Wednesday, a day before the kickoff of the Toronto Fest, London saw a sneak peek of “Born Romantic.” Comedy starring Jane Horrocks, Catherine McCormack, Olivia Williams and Adrian Lester concerns three men who take salsa lessons in order to pursue women.

Toronto could also serve as a clearinghouse for titles that previously lured acquisition execs to the table but didn’t quite get them to bite. These include the Oz pics “The Dish,” a comedy starring Sam Neill about events at the Australian satellite station that played a key role in communications for the 1969 moon landing, and “Chopper,” a dark comedy about the true story behind notorious criminal and bestselling author Chopper Reed.

Also on offer are two high-profile titles from Millennium Films: “Forever Lulu,” starring Patrick Swayze and Melanie Griffith, and “How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog,” starring Kenneth Branagh and Robin Wright Penn.

“There’s always a movie that surprises you in Toronto,” Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard said, citing examples such as 1992’s “Orlando,” 1994’s “Il Postino” and SPC’s 1995 pickup, “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

Execs on the prowl

What’s not surprising, however, is that competition for these films has sharply increased.

“Everyone’s been throwing money at the independent world” in the last four years, Gill said. “From Paramount Classics to Lions Gate, there’s a huge increase in the number of companies doing it.”

Gill said specialized releases have more than doubled in that period. “What all this means is that every specialized film, even the good ones, do less well than they used to.”

The risk of overpaying for films has increased accordingly — a risk that execs, with 20/20 hindsight, often blame on overemphasizing audience reaction.

“You want to find that picture that’s just under the radar,” one acquisitions vet said. “When you find something that plays well, it’s hard not to think, ‘This is it.’ ”

But the number of buyers also means it’s less likely for a quality film to go unnoticed. “We see everything that’s out there, from the script stage to finished films,” Artisan exec veep Patrick Gunn said. “There are fewer unexpected hits.”

Taking his ‘Shot’

Expectations are already high for filmmaker Corrente (“Federal Hill,” “Outside Providence”), who’s coming into Toronto with soccer drama “A Shot at Glory.” WMA Independent will rep the domestic sale, with Fireworks Intl. repping the foreign sale.

Corrente raised the film’s $10 million budget himself, using the same resources as his previous projects — equity from Wall Street and private investors. “No liens, no completion bonds,” he emphasized.

Although several well-reviewed soccer-themed indie releases have failed at the box office in the last 12 months, including Fine Line’s “The Cup” and USA Films’ “Mad About Mambo,” Corrente plans to make the sales on his film that will allow him to continue returning to his investment well.

“There have been a lot of soccer movies that get an actor who can’t kick the ball,” he said.

“Our movie has one of the greatest soccer players (Ally McCoist) — who also happens to be a hunk. I think he’s the kind of person we need for an exec to think, ‘I could take a chance on this guy.’ ”

The first chance execs will have to make that judgment is Sept. 11, when the film unspools for the first time.

“I keep getting calls from people who want to see the film early,” Corrente said. “They say, ‘C’mon! We have a relationship!’ And I’m like, we don’t have a relationship. Buy the movie and we might.”

Indeed, heading into Toronto and confronted with the tumultuous atmosphere that marks the arthouse market right now, more acquisitions execs than ever will be looking for the right relationships.

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