Indie company flaunts 'Devil,' nabs 'Battle'

The surprise winner out of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival was not the Weinstein Co. or Picturehouse, but little-indie-that-could ThinkFilm. The distrib launched 83-year-old Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” into the fall awards season and bought two of the most accessible films at the fest, both from actor-turned-directors: Helen Hunt’s “Then She Found Me,” starring Hunt and Colin Firth, and Stuart Townsend’s “Battle in Seattle,” starring Charlize Theron.

At ThinkFilm’s celebratory Toronto dinner for Lumet’s well-received gala premiere and Paul Schrader’s “The Walker,” head of theatrical Mark Urman couldn’t stop grinning. Both filmmakers were on hand, along with stars Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Lauren Bacall. But that wasn’t all. Word on ThinkFilm’s just-concluded “Seattle” deal was swiftly buzzing through the restaurant.

“We’re changing, growing,” says Urman. “We’re being perceived differently. It’s a new chapter of ThinkFilm.”

With the purchase of the company last October by film financier David Bergstein and Ron Tudor’s CapCo Group for about $25 million, indie ThinkFilm, co-founded in 2001 by Urman and CEO Jeff Sackman, has stepped into a new fighting class. Despite lackluster fest biz overall, the newly aggressive independent book-ended the event with two $2 million buys.

Over the fest’s first weekend, ThinkFilm established itself as an assertive buyer by scoring domestic distribution rights to Hunt’s romance “Found Me,” which was also being chased by Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co. On that film, says Urman, who harbors hopes of a “Waitress”-style femme-audience pleaser, “we needed to move quickly. The films we bought are challenging, where I felt we had a lot to offer.”

The distribution vet has something more crucial than deep pockets and the willingness to work hard: momentum. Urman has built the perception that he has Oscar moxie. Earlier this year he took the star of the unassuming Sundance pick-up “Half Nelson,” Ryan Gosling, all the way to an actor nom. And ThinkFilm has earned five nominations in as many years, nabbing best docu for “Born into Brothels.”During his tenure at Lionsgate, Urman also played a role in winning pushes for “Gods and Monsters” and “Affliction.”

Now he’s pushing another indie-that-could up the kudos hill. Earlier this year, the exec persuaded ThinkFilm sibling Capitol Films not to sell off its hardboiled drama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a comeback of sorts for Lumet, but to let ThinkFilm release it.

The noir about two hard-luck brothers who conspire to rob their parents will open limited in the U.S. on Oct. 26off its robust fest launches in Deauville, Toronto, New York (Lumet’s first NYFF slot since 1964’s “Fail-Safe”), the Hamptons and Rome. Philip Seymour Hoffman, especially, is generating some heat (as is the racy international trailer, which is circulating on the Internet). After an early rough-cut screening, Urman had a sense that the film’s actors were big in the indie world, and that as “a dark, nasty piece,” says Urman, it should not be sold as a studio film. “We’ve assembled a team with acknowledged taste and an acquisition apparatus with marketing and distribution ability,” says Urman, who plans a full-court awards-season screening program. “Other people are using the word Oscar before we do. The best way to break through that craziness is to deliver the goods. Soon we’ll know what we have.”

Urman’s philosophy: kick ass on the theatrical marketing campaign, and even if boxoffice is ephemeral, as it has been on many such 2007 limited releases as “The Wendell Baker Story” and “Zoo,” ancillary performance will improve. “That’s where we’ve done best,” he says, “by offering strong ancillary value.”

Unlike some more established distributors who tend to dictate to filmmakers, Urman prefers to let them into the marketing process, figuring their pictures are labors of love anyway. “It’s not about the money for them,” he says. “They’re doing it for passion and a little bit of glory. They need to know we’re really good to work with.”

On the other hand, when ThinkFilm picked up “Half Nelson,” Urman never entertained the suggestion that he recut the movie. “We like it the way it is,” he insisted at the time. “We bought it; we don’t remake the movies we buy.”

In a competitive climate in which distribs are routinely overpaying to grab what’s available on the acquisitions market, Urman is hoping that Capitol will be a willing financing partner for early pre-buys. “We offer a solid North American distributor,” he points out. “That’s part of our new agenda.”

But while ThinkFilm works in the below $12-million range, Capitol is financing larger pictures like “Devil,” as well as financing films through international sales. ThinkFilm is financing and selling packaged projects, not developing them, and it now gets a crack at many of Capitol’s submissions.

Although ThinkFilm is known for being strong on docs, this year in Toronto it found none to acquire. “Docs have to be different,” says Urman. “Audiences don’t want to see yet another doc about (just) anything. You can’t have any sense of deja vu.”

Pickups “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” “The Aristocats” and “Murderball” all drew attention for their unconventional approaches. From last year’s Toronto fest, Urman persuaded uncompromising filmmaker Tony Kaye to let ThinkFilm release his hard-hitting abortion documentary “Lake of Fire ,” due Oct. 3.

At Sundance last January, Urman acquired David Sington’s astronaut documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” for $2.5 million, which wound up winning the world cinema audience award; it’s struggling in current release. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix’s heartwarming Ugandan “War/Dance” (Nov. 2) has built a following on the film fest circuit.

Nor will Urman flinch from hot-button topics such as Abu Ghraib in Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” or Ted Leonsis’s “Nanking,” which reveals a nightmarish chapter in China and Japan’s history.

Urman now faces one of the more crowded fall seasons in recent memory. How he faces that challenge will mark ThinkFilm’s future.

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