Business could be brisk with many potential pickups

As the Toronto Film Festival gets under way Thursday, industryites headed to the event will be focusing on two different agendas.

A large group from all around the world will be there to buy and sell films, with some even trying to get a head start on November’s American Film Market.

Another contingent will arrive ready to start feeling the temperature on how films will play with audiences and how they might stack up for the coming awards season.

The two groups meet somewhere in the middle — at screenings, receptions and Toronto’s bustling Bloor Street in the Yorkville fest zone.

U.S. distributors mainly do a little bit of both. They’re in Toronto to plug titles they’ll be sending into theaters this fall and winter, some of them kudo bait. But they’re also scoping out potential acquisitions.

Sony Pictures Classics will be showing about a half-dozen titles over the coming 10 days, but company execs will be on the prowl, too.

Among the films SPC will be tubthumping are Pedro Almodovar’s latest, “Broken Embraces”; Cannes pickup “A Prophet”; and a recent buy they’ve been chasing since the French fest, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Micmacs.”

But co-prexy Tom Bernard concedes, “We’re really going up there to find movies.” He feels this year is more of an open field, as opposed to last year when a few buzz-heavy titles were headed to Canada. “There’s no ‘Wrestler’ this year; it’s discovery time. There are a lot of movies to see.”

Acquisitive boutique labels including SPC, IFC Films, Magnolia and newer shops, such as Oscilloscope, could get busy with more than a hundred available features unspooling at the festival.

“We’re looking for our late-winter through summer slate,” says Oscilloscope’s David Fenkel. Company has picked up 18 titles in its first year and is looking to buy about 15-18 pics annually, with some earmarked to go straight to DVD.

Lionsgate buyer Jason Constantine also is ready for action. “Toronto has historically been an important festival for acquisitions,” he says. His company picked up docu “More Than a Game” out of the fest last year, and in previous years it acquired Oscar contenders such as “Crash” and “Away From Her.”

Now that Telluride has passed and Venice is well under way, a handful of films are emerging as potential acquisitions as well as awards fodder. Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime,” which is looking for distribution, got solid notices out of both fests. And Paramount’s “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney and helmed by Jason Reitman, is already receiving kudo heat out of Telluride.

For Canadian-born Reitman, Toronto is something of a homecoming, and not just because of his family roots. Toronto was where the writer-director’s first feature, “Thank You for Smoking,” was acquired in a showdown between Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics in 2005. Searchlight was ultimately victorious and later went on to release Reitman-helmed “Juno,” which also had a sneak preview in Telluride and then bowed in Toronto. He’s especially pleased that his third pic will premiere in his favorite theater, the Ryerson, on Saturday.

” ‘Thank You for Smoking’ was competitive at the time, but going into the fest it wasn’t an obvious pickup target,” remembers Overture COO Danny Rosett. “What’s nice about Toronto is these gems that come out of it.”

In 2007, Overture found “The Visitor” there. Pic went on to do solid specialty business and got awards love. “The film had great performances, but it was a challenge from a marketing perspective, so you find not just high-profile films but the gems that pop out.”

“We strike a balance that the industry seems to like very much,” says festival co-director Cameron Bailey. “People like to see films with our audiences.”

Still, with more than 3,000 industry execs descending upon the city this week, Toronto is more than merely a festival. But the event has worked hard to downplay any official market designations.

“We’re a festival with a large industry component,” insists the fest’s Stefan Wirthensohn, who heads up the Sales and Industry Office.

“It’s a quasi-market at best,” says Stuart Ford, CEO of foreign sales company IM Global. “We find that most distributors come to Toronto to see finished movies. They’re not really there to prebuy films at the script or package stage.”

That being said, sales agents continue to set up suites in the Sutton Place Hotel and show buyers footage offilms in the works. Ford will be showing about 15-20 minutes of John Wells’ “The Company Men,” for example.

But it’s Toronto’s generally even-keeled tone that keeps most bizzers happy. “It’s not that crisis situation, like at Sundance, where you’ve got to sell the movie or die,” says SPC’s Bernard. “A lot of Europeans come to Toronto that don’t come to Sundance. You can meet the sellers, maybe get a script. There’s a lot of access to talent. It’s a place to really connect to all the different parts of the indie world.”

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