Exit strategies replace early optimism

Toronto suffers from U.S. attacks

TORONTO — At the start of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, everyone spoke of films, the cautious mood of buyers and how much the specialty community needed a good fest. But by the late morning on Sept. 11, the Toronto had ground to a halt, with festgoers huddled around large-screen TV monitors in hotel lobbies, their faces shocked and angry watching the horrific images beamed from south of the border of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

By week’s end, as the horror began to sink in, the films and the business surrounding them had become secondary. The frenetic world of buying film rights or promoting pics or scouting for talent suddenly had become meaningless. The derailed fest left attendees confused, and worried about friends and family in the U.S. Their focus then shifted to the Herculean task of getting home from Toronto, with virtually all flights out of Canada canceled.

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Some top execs decided to take matters into their own hands: Warner Bros. and Intermedia Films sent private jets in to fetch their employees, while others organized car pools and hit the road back to L.A. or Gotham. But scores of filmmakers, thesps, producers and journalists were stranded in Toronto, left to do little else but drink and watch the same images over and over again on CNN.

After closing down the event Sept. 11, a somber-looking fest director Piers Handling elected to continue the fest — but it was whittled down, with no parties, no red carpet ceremonies and few stars on hand for press interviews. The prints of several films never made it to Toronto, including Thai pic “Jan Dara,” controversial U.S. film “The Believer” and “Sisters.” U.S. helmer Leon Ichaso asked to have his Miramax pic, “Pinero,” withdrawn because he felt it was inappropriate to screen the Gotham-set pic last week.

In short, what should have been a major launch pad for studio and specialty pics fell far short of that ideal.

Still, in spite of all the problems, there was some significant acquisition activity. Sony Pictures Classics nabbed two pics — the Iranian film “Secret Ballot,” helmed by Babak Payami; and Jill Sprecher’s “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.” The Miramax machine jumped into action, snatching up North American rights to Gregor Jordan’s “Buffalo Soldiers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Anna Paquin.

Lions Gate also had an active fest, snatching up North American rights to “Lovely and Amazing” from director Nicole Holofcener, after Fox Searchlight Pictures withdrew a bid made following the pic’s preem at the Telluride Film Festival.

Other movies to spark distrib enthusiasm included helmer Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Christina Ricci-starrer “Prozac Nation”; Fred Schepisi’s “Last Orders,” starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins; and Rose Troche’s “The Safety of Objects,” toplining Glenn Close.

Many other deals that might have been made at the fest will likely close in the weeks to come, once some semblance of normalcy returns to the lives of industry execs.

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