Industry optimistic as festival winds down

Perched at the start of serious film season, the Toronto Film Festival traditionally offers views in at least three directions: the awards race, fall B.O. and the acquisitions market.

The quality of films overall lifted a lot of spirits, especially those in the beleaguered indie and specialty sectors. A few awards hopefuls earned new supporters, though the kudos buzz was more subdued than in past years. And there was just enough deal action to fuel conversation at the countless cocktail parties, dinners and latenight bashes.

The 33rd edition (Sept. 4-13) offered 300-plus films. About 3,000 industry delegates put up with soggier-than-usual weather — a healthy turnout but notably lacking a few regulars feeling the financial squeeze.

In terms of acquisitions, the pace was uneven and the overall tally much less bountiful than in past years. (Was it really only three years ago that “Thank You for Smoking” and “Trust the Man” fetched $7 million apiece?)

The outset of the fest saw a start-and-stop progression of deals. First came a handful of small arthouse pickups, then a three-day lull, then pacts closed on consecutive days by Fox Searchlight for “The Wrestler,” Summit for “The Hurt Locker” and IFC for “Che.”

The IFC deal for Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che Guevara epic was perhaps the most interesting.

For one thing, it encapsulated the angst that has taken hold of the biz in 2008. IFC isn’t known for paying big upfront advances, and no other suitor (such as Magnolia, long rumored to be the buyer) stepped up to the plate. In years past, the film’s subpar Cannes showing would not have deterred buyers looking for marketable fare.

The “Che” pact also pointed up how the business is shifting. IFC’s video-on-demand focus has intensified as the industry’s B.O. revenue continues slipping. Sellers, especially of prestige titles, find that model intriguing even if they sacrifice some upfront payday.

In a more traditional way, Searchlight’s $4 million “The Wrestler” buy proved the talk of the fest. Darren Aronofsky returned to the inner circle of hot directors, and star Mickey Rourke vaulted into kudos consideration decades after he was a mainstay in the film biz.

Summit’s acquisition of Kathryn Bigelow’s well-received Iraq-set thriller “The Hurt Locker” for $1.2 million plus a commitment to a wide release also sparked speculation. Summit emphasized its universal qualities and said it wouldn’t encounter the resistance that has doomed most Iraq War films.

Some big titles remained unclaimed by the festival’s end, among them the Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy “Management,” which producer Sidney Kimmel reacquired from original distrib MGM, and LeBron James basketball doc “More Than a Game.”

“Some movies don’t sell right away,” says Micah Green of CAA, which handled “Wrestler” and “Hurt Locker.” “They take time to build momentum. An expectation gets established based on a successful festival screening, but sometimes the best deal for the film isn’t available right afterward in that festival environment. That’s rational. It’s not something that should cast doubt on the quality of the film.”

Splashy bows included Focus’ “Burn After Reading,” Warner Bros.’ “RocknRolla,” Miramax’s “Blindness” and Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” Brad and Jen reunited — well, they were in the same city, at any rate — and walked the red carpet (separately), as did Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Anne Hathaway and dozens more.

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