Distribs grumble over lack of available English-lingo titles

TORONTO — On the brisk and quiet morning of Sept. 11, roughly fifty Toronto Intl. Film Festival attendees stood solemnly for a moment of silence in the lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel, where many of fest’s guests were lodged.

In a nearby local diner, one could hear songs such as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a dreamy rendition of “Summertime” playing softly on the radio.

The few people eating breakfast leafed through a 20-page commemorative section in Canadian newspaper the National Post, which included a photographic ode to the people of New York; or they spoke in soft tones, or stared out of the window at nothing in particular.

The business of the film festival seemed far from their minds.

For most acquisitions execs, the market was fairly healthy but not robust. Many felt the pressure to buy because they had passed on recent breakout indies. Tougher still, their purse strings were tighter as they hunted for hits.

Most of the pics that sold were foreign films that had screened at Cannes or Venice. Overall, distribs complained about the lack of available English-lingo titles, noting pictures that had generated pre-fest buzz turned out to be overhyped, including “Try 17,” “Never Get Outta the Boat” and Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists.”

However, a well-attended press and industry screening on the morning of Sept. 11 of 9/11-themed “The Guys,” starring Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, elicited a warm reaction from distribs.

Miramax emerged as the festival’s most aggressive buyer, coughing up $900,000 for U.S. and various other rights to French-lingo pic “Jet Lag,” starring Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno, and $600,000 for U.K./Ireland co-production “The Magdalene Sisters,” fresh off its Golden Lion win at Venice.

Lions Gate nabbed “Irreversible,” the graphic and controversial French pic that preemed at Cannes, proclaiming its desire to release the film with an NC-17 rating. By midweek, Czech pic “Autumn Spring” had attracted U.S. distribs, though no deal had closed.

And Strand Releasing quietly scooped up Italian-lingo lesbian thriller “Gasoline,” while Paramount Classics took domestic and most English-speaking territory rights to “House of Fools,” the Venice Grand Jury Prize winner helmed by Russian vet Andrei Konchalovsky.

In addition, several docus emerged as likely sales, including Jeff Blitz’s “Spellbound” and Steve James’ “Stevie.”

“The documentary market is thriving,” says Micah Green of Cinetic Media, who is selling “Stevie.” “Michael Moore’s ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ which sold to United Artists at Cannes for a lot of money, has inspired almost every distributor to consider documentaries.”

Adds Green, “Part of the reason why people are looking so closely at docs and foreign-language films is that the success of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ has destabilized the acquisitions community. Several executives got into trouble for passing on that film and ‘Y tu mama tambien.'”

The absence of viable English-lingo pics is not surprising for some observers of the specialty scene.

“The hardest thing these days at festivals is to find available English-language titles,” says Neil Friedman, a world sales agent. “Part of that has to do with the downturn in the economy. The go-go years are over, particularly since the private sector doesn’t have much available capital.”

Sony Pictures Classics had a record 12 pics unveiling at the fest, but the company for the first time in years wasn’t spending. “There are fewer films available than in past years,” said SPC co-topper Michael Barker. “Still, there are some quality movies here. The real question is: Will these films be able to survive the domestic marketplace?”

The biggest chatter on Bloor Street, the main festival drag, was about the long lineups for press and industry screenings and the problems many critics had getting into to see A-list pics.

When several high-profile U.S. reviewers complained about being shut out of Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” one of the hottest titles at the fest, the local newspapers responded with blistering personal attacks against Roger Ebert and other critics.

By week’s end, there was a full-scale cross-border media war of words raging, underlining long-standing tensions between U.S. and Canadian press at the event.

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