The race is on for niche riches

Buyers in Toronto can't afford to overlook next indie sleeper

When the Toronto Intl. Film Festival kicks off Sept. 5, attendees will have more than movies on their minds: they will be carrying with them memories of 9/11, when the festival was abruptly transformed into a somber affair, with cluster of film execs and journalists huddled around wide-screen TVs in hotel lobbies, watching in disbelief.

However, U.S. distribs and their acquisitions teams will be keen to see a new crop of domestic and international pics, particularly at a time when the specialty distribution landscape has become so volatile.

As the IFC release “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” continues to astound, execs will have their radar out for the next pic with breakout potential.

That could mean a small foreign film like Inuit standout “The Fast Runner,” a quirky thriller like “Memento” or a pic that is more fluff than smart arthouse fare. (“Greek” had been rejected by last year’s Toronto fest programmers and nearly every domestic distrib).

“I think it’s going to be a modest year,” says Fox Searchlight senior veep of acquisitions Tony Safford. “I think people are willing to pay top dollar, but I don’t see much available popping up in the program.”

Still, the consensus among distribs is that finding such a gem this go-round will be tricky: Witness the downturn in U.S. indie production over the last 12 months and the abysmal financial climate.

Nonetheless, a dozen or so available films are generating pre-fest buzz, among them: Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” Jim Simpson’s “The Guys,” Paul Quinn’s “Never Get Outta the Boat,” Jeff Porter’s “Try Seventeen,” Sergei Bodrov’s “The Bear’s Kiss,” Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-ever,” Peter Mullan’s “Magdalene Sisters,” Chen Kaige’s “Together,” Mehdi Nerowzian’s “Leo” and the controversial “Ken Park,” directed by Larry Clark and Ed Lachman.

Sarah Lash, director of acquisitions at IFC, says the fest may prove more active than people might predict because many execs are not attending this year’s Venice Fest.

And Miramax Films’ senior veep of acquisitions, Arianna Bocco, notes, “There will be a lot of desire to find the next indie that’s going to pop.”

“I think a lot of disappointments have befallen many of the indie companies, great and small, and the whole acquisitions agenda has to be approached very differently,” says Mark Urman, who heads distribution for ThinkFilm, which launched last year in Toronto.

“We have to be clever, exhaustive, open-minded to all kinds of films, because — particularly this year — success has come from the most unlikely of places, and failure as well.”

Miramax may be in a cautious mood after shelling out $5 million for Gary Winick’s digital pic “Tadpole” at Sundance and seeing less than stellar returns.

Company will face stiff competition from Focus Features, which recently restructured its acquisitions team and proved it can play hardball. In true Miramax fashion, the U-based shingle made a preemptive buy at Cannes, snatching Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” before some distribs had seen it.

Under the leadership of vet specialty exec Bingham Ray, United Artists coughed up a hefty seven-figure sum for Michael Moore’s bold Cannes doc “Bowling for Columbine,” and the shingle is expected to be a factor at Toronto as well.

IFC Films heads into the fest with the hot hand. While the distrib’s ace, Bob Berney, ankled to run distribution at Newmarket (which may itself be an active buyer), the remaining team will command respect, given the company’s clever dealmaking and distribution of “Greek Wedding” and “Y tu mama tambien.”

Fox Searchlight’s track record with “Kissing Jessica Stein” earlier in the year and more recent successes in “The Good Girl” and “One Hour Photo” makes the shingle a serious player at any fest.

But Searchlight may not be as hungry as, say, Fine Line Features, which has nearly dropped off the acquisitions map during the past year, or Artisan, known for its offbeat taste.

Sony Pictures Classics has been less interested than its competitors in bidding wars or in paying hefty pricetags, but the savvy shingle has been consistently active.

SPC bought “Love Liza” and other pics at Sundance and quietly scooped up five films, mostly foreign-lingo, at Cannes. The shingle is also one of the few with a voracious appetite for docs.

Expect Lions Gate, Paramount Classics and a smattering of micro shingles such as ThinkFilm, Magnolia, Cowboy, IDP, Palm, New Yorker, Wellspring and Lot 47 to scour the 344 pics unspooling at Toronto, in search of a gem that can fill out their slates.

But while Toronto kicks off the fall market, its avid audiences and casual ambiance make it a must for the majors and specialty distribs looking to show off their new pics and see how they will play to public and critics alike.

More than in years past, everyone seems to have a high-profile film in tow and some execs headed across the border are quietly complaining about the “Sundancing of Toronto.”

Toronto fest director Piers Handling knows what today’s top fests must be.

Huge films and huge stars, he tells Variety, “play an increasing role in the success of all major festivals in Europe and North America. But it’s important that there’s a balance. We have to make sure we’re starting new programs.”

Toward that end, this year’s event includes a focus on pics made in South Korea and a new program called Visions, featuring more experimental works.

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