Offbeat pix pack Toronto

Buyers cautious as fest bows

TORONTO — It’s still the place to pick up buzz, but Toronto festgoers might not pick up pics.

The 26th Toronto Intl. Film Festival kicks off tonight with the Gala screening of “Last Wedding” from Canuck helmer Bruce Sweeney and, although distribs embrace the Great White North event as the premiere place to launch pics, many buyers are coming into Toronto with cautious demeanors.

With ravenous and informed local auds, Toronto event, which runs through Sept. 15, programs eclectic, offbeat fare that usually finds an appreciative audience — which is why distribs and marketers love the festival.

Sony Pictures Classics hits town with eight upcoming releases in tow, including John Sayles’ “Sunshine State,” while mainstream Hollywood is repped by Fox’s “From Hell,” starring Johnny Depp; Warner Bros.’ “Training Day,” toplined by Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke; Fred Schepisi’s “Last Orders”; and “Shine” helmer Scott Hicks’ “Hearts of Atlantis,” starring Anthony Hopkins.

Unpredictable fest

Although marketeers will get their money’s worth out of Toronto, buyers and sellers are looking at an unpredictable fest.

The slumping economy has led some talent agencies and production houses to cut back on fest entourages, but acquisitions execs are still looking for niche offerings.

Generating heat, lacking North American distribution and apparent commercial shine are Bart Freundlich’s “World Traveler,” Mike Figgis’ “Hotel,” Rose Troche’s “The Safety of Objects,” Ken Loach’s “The Navigators,” Carlos Saura’s “Bunuel and King Solomon’s Table” and Gregor Jordan’s “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“There wasn’t much available in the spring and summer,” Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard said. “Now, there’s a lot coming right out of the editing room. This is the first crop of ‘post-strike’ films.”

“The market has gotten very specific,” said Good Machine partner David Linde, who will be selling a handful of films at the fest. “People are coming in and evaluating it very much from a numbers basis.”

Still, some remain optimistic. Attorney and specialty pic vet John Sloss, who will be selling such films as “Safety of Objects” and “World Traveler,” said, “This is a great selling fest.”

Sloss has reason to be optimistic. For the vet niche players — such as Miramax, Fine Line, Lions Gate, Artisan, Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Classics, USA Films and Fox Searchlight — production is as big a part of what they do as acquisitions. Companies also have been getting involved with films earlier, often at a script stage.

This leaves the door open for a passel of hungrier, smaller distribs who have recently entered the acquisitions game — Lot 47, IFC Films and Fireworks Pictures, as well as the newly formed ThinkFilm and a re-energized United Artists, with former October topper Bingham Ray at the helm — and who could dramatically boost the buying quotient.

Euro invasion

Europeans, meanwhile, have been using Toronto as their North American port of entry. This year’s event includes more than 110 films by Euro helmers.

High-profile European co-productions include Milcho Manchevski’s “Dust,” an Italian-German-U.K.-Macedonian film starring Joseph Fiennes, and Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land” (Bosnia-France-Italy-Belgium-U.K.-Slovakia), which won the screenplay award at Cannes this year.

Among the many French selections are Laurent Cantet’s “L’Emploi du Temps,” a follow-up to his 1999 Euro hit “Human Resources.”

In the end, it’s all about the movies, and with 326 films (of which 249 are features) at the fest, cineastes get to sink their teeth into a tribute to vet Quebecois filmmaker Jean Pierre Lefebvre or the Nordic Visions sidebar featuring Scandinavian pics like Bille August’s “A Song for Martin.”

And, since Toronto is a noncompetitive event, locals can take in high-profile pics from previous fests such as Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom,” Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room,” Michael Haneke’s ‘The Pianist,” David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” plus lots of shorts and docs.

(Sharon Swart and Tamsen Tilson contributed to this report.)

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