Niche arm flexing again with Toronto buys

TORONTO — Fox Searchlight apparently has emerged victorious in the contentious Toronto fest bidding war for Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking.”

And, following that victory, the Peter Rice-run specialty banner has beat out Miramax Films to seal a multiterritory deal for writer-helmer Bart Freundlich’s romantic comedy “Trust the Man.”

The aggressive moves put the company back in the specialty spotlight: The 20th Century Fox division kept quiet at Sundance when Rice skipped the fest as he attempted to keep the company’s ill-fated, Oz-set project “Eucalyptus” on track.

Searchlight is said to have shelled out about $8 million for “Trust,” which follows a group of modern-day New Yorkers facing the challenges of love and marriage. Pic co-stars Julianne Moore, David Duchovny, Billy Crudup, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Eva Mendes and Ellen Barkin. It screened Monday in Toronto’s special presentations section and is a rare comedy in a fest lineup that many buyers say is filled with dark, arty pics.

Searchlight said it will roll out the film, which was being sold here by CAA, in 2006 year.

Company also added “Smoking” to its ’06 slate this week, although Paramount Classics execs are still claiming the pic is actually theirs, asserting that Searchlight should not have been able to come in with an eleventh-hour bid after Par had a verbal agreement with seller the William Morris Agency.

“Trust the Man,” was produced by Tim Perell of Process Prods. and Sidney Kimmel of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. And Searchlight comes away with rights in North America, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Benelux, China, Columbia, France, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Switzerland and Taiwan.

Meantime, Miramax — which lost out on “Trust” and will be operating under exec Daniel Battsek when Bob and Harvey Weinstein exit the company Oct.1 — has very quietly been making bids on a number of Toronto titles as the Disney banner goes about building its slate.

Miramax would not confirm its interest in any pics — apparently preferring to fly under the radar — but sources said the company was pursuing South African Oscar submission “Tsotsi,” high school basketball doc “The Heart of the Game” and Sydney Pollack’s doc “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” among others.

Company was not able to get its hands on “Trust,” however, as it looks to build a slate of about 10 pics a year.

According to sellers, Battsek might face some challenges landing pics before the company has officially filled out the rest of its staff. Though Miramax is one of the specialty film world’s most prominent brand names, producers‘ reps and agents say they are looking at the company as essentially a new entity.

“They have a brand and a lot of muscle,” said one rep, “but the execs will be more important. Filmmakers may feel it’s hard to sell to someone when you don’t know who their head of marketing is.”

But the mini-major does have the backing of Disney and can leverage the company’s empire, perhaps more than ever before. The Weinsteins’ prickly relationship with their corporate parent tended to keep the two at arm’s length. Battsek comes from Buena Vista Intl.

For example, Miramax and Disney’s interest in Pollack’s “Gehry” docu could stem, in part, because the conglom funded one of the architect’s most prominent structures, its Los Angeles-based Walt Disney Concert Hall. Structure is featured prominently in Pollack’s documentary.

Meantime, acquisitions execs for the temporarily monikered Weinstein Co., led by Agnes Mentre, have been making the rounds, and Harvey Weinstein was in town during the fest’s first weekend, but the company has yet to find a target.

Overall reaction to the Toronto pics so far has largely been muted. Expectations were high for execs, but many of the titles have been deemed smaller, highly specialized buys. Fest largely comprises, according to execs this year, of arty, moody dramas that might prove tough sells off the fest circuit.

“Harsh Times,” starring Christian Bale and Eva Longoria, is one pic that has interest from buyers, including Warner Independent. Pic is being repped by WMA.

While comedy “Smoking” was a genre rarity here, another funny pic getting attention is “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” Pic, by “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” helmer Michel Gondry, screened Monday.

A deal was said to be close to being sealed Tuesday with Focus Features in the lead to take rights.

In other news, DDC banner — a partnership between execs John Della Penna, Dante Di Loreto, and Michael Cortese — picked up domestic rights to “Viva Cuba,” the new film by director Juan Carlos Cremata preeming at Toronto this week.

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