Stars left in docs' dust

This article was updated at 10:00 p.m.

TORONTO — It’s political docs and genre pics that are making noise in Toronto — and the stars who are getting left behind.

In the second notable deal for a political pic in two days, Abu Ghraib expose “The Prisoner, or: How I Tried to Kill Tony Blair,” pacted with Netflix’s Red Envelope label in a deal that will see movie get theatrical distribution through an as-yet undetermined partner.

Movie will be released in the spring to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war; it also will get homevid and possible TV distribution.

Pic centers on Yunis Khatayer Abbas, an Iraqi journalist detained by the military for nine months beginning in September 2003.

Though movie clocks in at under 60 minutes, since the emergence several weeks ago of Spc. Benjamin Thompson, a soldier who was stationed at the prison, filmmakers have created more footage they will cut into the movie to prep for its theatrical release.

At Friday’s screening in Toronto, Thompson made a surprise appearance in which he criticized American treatment of detainees in Iraq.

Unusual deal offers the option of a lower price point — and an opt-out on theatrical — if the material isn’t added. But Red Envelope exec Bahman Naraghi said he expected filmmakers to come through with a fuller version that could be released in theaters.

Despite Red Envelope not having settled on a theatrical partner (company has in the past worked with IFC, among others), co-helmer Michael Tucker (“Gunner Palace”) dismissed concerns about the play the pic would get.

“Of all the deals I’ve made as a filmmaker, this one makes the most sense,” he told Daily Variety.

Netflix’s recent theatrical efforts include current Maggie Gyllenhaal starrer “Sherrybaby” and MPAA doc “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”

Tuesday also saw heavy interest for horror-comedy “Black Sheep,” a New Zealand-set tale of rampaging genetically altered sheep, although early favorite Fox Atomic confirmed late Tuesday that it was bowing out.

Movie was second hot pic to come from genre-centric Midnight Madness program, and yet another title to spawn a deal, despite playing away from the bright lights and red carpets of the fest’s high-profile Gala Presentations.

Instead, it’s the early-evening docs and latenight genre pics in smaller venues that are mobilizing acquisitions execs and drawing coin.

In fact, the most expensive acquisition to date, the Weinstein Co.’s reported $3.5 million Midnight Madness buy of “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” is a horror pic that does not involve celebs.

Further underscoring the point was Magnolia, which on Tuesday closed a deal on Hong Kong gangster pic and Venice fave “Exiled” two days before its Toronto preem. Though the movie is getting a relatively higher-profile bow at the city’s Elgin Theater, it’s an ensemble action pic with no stars.

Company bought all English-language rights to the Johnnie To pic from Media Asia.

On the other hand, the star-heavy pics that came into the fest with rights still available have picked up less traction.

Acquisition interest has been slow to develop for “Penelope,” the Reese Witherspoon-produced teenage fable starring Christina Ricci that has not registered high on some execs’ radars since bowing last Friday.

And “Bonneville,” the Kathy Bates- and Jessica Lange-starring female road pic that premiered Monday night at the fest, met with lukewarm reception from some execs Tuesday, though those involved with the sale of the film described heavy interest. They also noted the strength of the demo, pointing to the success of movies aimed at women over 50, including “Calendar Girls” and “Boynton Beach Club.”

Even the Vince Vaughn doc “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show” sold for a relatively small $2.5 million to TWC; it attracted interest in large part, insiders said, because of the comedy of the unknown performers.

Jennifer Lopez’s shingle Nuyorican Prods., which produced “El Cantante,” hope to change the fortunes of the big-budgeters when the salsa biopic preems Tuesday night. Lopez co-stars with husband Marc Anthony.

Insiders pointed to the fact that the star-studded movies with more commercial potential had sold long before they hit the fest, leaving only the less viable celeb-heavy pics.

“It’s not one of the strongest years,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker. “We’ve had years where we’ve bought three or four films. That’s not going to happen this year.”

A price impasse also may be to blame: Producers are holding out for more money for their talent-laden –and often costly — productions, while distribs attempt to draw their line in the sand.

With this market drying up, distribs find themselves searching in more undetected corners.

There has been perhaps no better success story in recent years than Midnight Madness, which, in addition to stealing the thunder this year, was the platform for hot pics “Cabin Fever” and “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” several years ago.

About 87% of pics in the Madness program in the last five years have ended up at least as a DVD release. “If you go to the public screenings, they’re very well attended,” programmer Colin Geddes said. “I take pride in seeing all the buyers there.”

In other deal news, Canadian rights to CGI pic “The Ugly Duckling and Me,” a twist on the Ugly Duckling fable co-directed by Karsten Kiilerich and Michael Hegner, went to Montreal-based TVA Films.

After rumors of negotiations early Tuesday, there was no definitive word on Paul Verhoeven’s foreign-language “Black Book” ahead of its Wednesday preem, or Sarah Polley’s directorial debut “Away From Her,” repped by William Morris, which preemed Monday night.

Separately, police identified the three guests who were murdered Sunday night at the Delta Chelsea Hotel and confirmed they were European tourists not associated with the film fest.

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

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