Execs predict busy event with many purchases

Stateside distributors are ready for round three, following intense buying sprees at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year.

The credit crisis may still be reverberating, but largely undaunted film companies are entering the 32nd Toronto Film Festival with fat wallets and a healthy appetite for product.

Given the potential guild strikes, the number of new buyers and revitalized studio specialty arms seeking the next “Little Miss Sunshine,” most observers expect the pic purchasing pace to remain steady.

“This will be a busy and acquisition-filled festival, there is not too much doubt about that,” Lionsgate prexy Tom Ortenberg says.

While Toronto continues to be a crucial proving ground — a “shop window,” in the words of Miramax topper Daniel Battsek — for pics with Oscar ambitions, fest screenings can also help buyers assess playability of potential acquisitions.

One reason, say vets: Eager film lovers represent a sizable chunk of the Toronto audience, as opposed to jaundiced cineastes whose idea of a commercial director is Bela Tarr. “It’s like an early version of a test screening, so it can be quite useful in revealing the connection some films establish,” one buyer offers.

“There will be a lot more caffeine and even more of a frenzy than last year,” agrees Mark Gill, who just launched the Film Dept., a production, financing and foreign sales outfit. “There are more companies looking for product, and people have seen what has come out of Toronto in years past.”

Buyers are especially focused on the name-talent-heavy titles and hope to discover pics with commercial prospects such as “Thank You for Smoking,” which sold at the fest to Fox Searchlight amid

a heated battle in 2005 and went on to gross

$25 million domestically. (Pic’s helmer, Jason Reitman, returns to Toronto this year with “Juno,” which already has a U.S. distrib — Searchlight.)

With plenty of new buyers in the mix — Summit, Overture and Senator among the new domestic distribs — Toronto is a happy hunting ground, given how much mainstream product remains available. For the specialty divisions, the challenge is a dual one: beguiling the world film media with gala unspoolings and preems of their long-awaited pics while also not missing the boat on acquisition titles.

Given the fest’s massive scale — some say too massive — expect a steady hum of activity.

“There are a lot more holes to fill on people’s schedules this year, so it’s going to mean more people going to screenings making sure they got to everything,” notes Andrew Herwitz, whose Film Sales Co. is shopping five titles in Toronto.

Attorney and sales vet John Sloss also has a packed roster of films. It includes some of the fest’s most chased-after titles, such as Sigourney Weaver/Kate Bosworth drama “The Girl in the Park” and Uma Thurman starrer “In Bloom.”

“We have a more commercial slate than usual,” Sloss says, adding that he doesn’t have a single documentary on offer at the fest.

In addition to all the U.S. companies doing business in Toronto, just as many, if not more, overseas distributors see the Canuck event as must-attend. In the past five to seven years, fest regulars say, international buyer attendance has grown dramatically.

While not as many foreign pics are snapped up as in Berlin or Cannes, sometimes a crowdpleaser will wind up as a major takeaway (such as “Tsotsi” a couple of years ago). One prominent foreign title on a lot of short lists: “Le deuxieme souffle,” a thriller starring Daniel Auteuil and Monica Bellucci.

What does all this hunger and activity add up to? Headaches, when it comes time to release films, in many cases. Specialty players are piling up eight to 10 titles on a weekend — some very limited, some in a few dozen theaters, but all reducing the potential for every B.O. hopeful.

“This business would be a lot healthier if there were 450 titles a year instead of 650,” laments Meyer Gottlieb, head of Samuel Goldwyn.

Sharon Swart contributed to this report.

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