With Miramax deal pending, buyers are in flux

As Toronto and other fests kick off a new buying season, the specialty biz is confronting a familiar scenario: The world is in flux.

Telluride, Venice, Toronto and the New York festivals have plenty of intriguing titles on tap, with some available for U.S. distribution. While it’s been a tough year as many indies have faded, there are plenty of new players with big plans, and there is general optimism that there could be a flurry of healthy buying at Toronto — even if it’s at Toronto 2011.

While some say that the smaller pool of buyers presents a great opportunity for those who remain, there is a general uncertainty about whether people will be spending — and if so, who and when. There is the still-to-be-consummated deal to sell Miramax to a group of investors, the departure of key player Bob Berney from Apparition and still-in-the-works financing of Mark Gill and Neil Sacker’s the Film Department.

Among companies in a prime position to buy, however, could be Relativity Media, which took over Overture Films’ titles and will need more product for its pipeline.

And, of course, there are stalwarts like Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Co.

The indie distribution biz is always going through some sort of tumult, but tightened credit markets and skittish investors have forced players to be extra savvy.

“Distribution isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard. You have overhead burning at both ends,” says one distribution vet.

“All these companies exiting and entering distribution, a lot of them are doing it for the wrong reasons,” the exec continues. “You have to decide what you want to be. Do you release more commercical movies, or arthouse titles? Are you OK with just releasing smaller-grossing films?”

Construction magnate Ron Tutor and his investors, who are operating under Filmyard Holdings, plan to bring on a management team and get into the distribution game once financing comes together for their acquisition of the Miramax library. But insiders say Filmyard won’t be ready to announce plans until mid-September, at the earliest. Filmyard might be ready to shop at Toronto, but sellers will want to make sure everything is in place for Tutor’s Miramax deal.

Also unclear is whether Graham King’s beefed-up GK Films, which recently hired former Sony Pictures prexy of worldwide affairs Peter Schlessel, will expand into distribution, or continue to put its movies out through Sony Pictures Entertainment.

There have been rumblings that Bob Berney could join GK Films and start a distribution venture for certain GK titles. It’s possible GK Films could be waiting for the fall fests to announce Berney’s arrival, but some insiders suggest nothing yet has gelled, considering the high cost of starting a theatrical distribution arm.

Berney became available in May, when he abruptly departed Apparition, the distributor he launched with Bill Pohlad only a year ago.

Insiders said Pohlad wanted his own distribution operation after being unhappy with the way Paramount opened “Into the Wild,” which he produced. Pohlad thought the film warranted a nationwide opening; Par opened “Wild” in a limited run, then platformed it out.

But the realities of running a distribution company were just as tough. Apparition had modest success with a few titles (“Young Victoria,” “Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day”), but it didn’t find a breakout B.O. hit in its first year.

Sans Berney, the future of Apparition also remains murky.

Apparition has dramatically reduced its staffing. It’s laboring to release Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” which still wasn’t ready for a trip for Venice, Telluride or Toronto.

Another open question is Mark Gill and Neil Sacker’s the Film Department. Earlier this month, the company withdrew its proposal to go public and said it is close to securing another $200 million in private financing.

The Film Department has a domestic distribution agreement with the Weinstein Co., meaning its films would have a guaranteed theatrical release. Sacker and Gill will use the new coin for acquisitions and to make a handful of films annually.

But company officials say they doubt the financing will be in place in time for the fall fest, meaning it probably won’t be in a buying position.

Some smaller distributors made splashes with pickups, but their struggles show the difficulty of the current market. Publishing-video company Hannover House acquired U.S. rights to Josh Radnor’s “Happythankyoumoreplease” at Sundance, but the deal is falling through, with Anchor Bay now negotiating to handle U.S. distribution.

Last year’s Sundance pic “I Love You Phillip Morris,” starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, was to have gone out through the fledgling Consolidated Pictures, but was pulled back by producers Europa when Consolidated didn’t pony up print and advertising coin. Kevin Spacey starrer “Casino Jack” also has lost its original distrib, the newbie Metropolitan.

That’s the discouraging news.

The good news is that, even with all companies exiting indie distribution over the past several years, the parties still in business continue to need fresh fare. Many of the films premiering at Venice, Telluride and Toronto already have distribution, but a few titles are still available.

Several festival acquisitions were strong performers this year, led by”The Kids Are All Right,” which Focus Features acquired in January at Sundance. Film has scored more than $17 million domestically.

“Winter’s Bone,” acquired by Roadside Attractions at Sundance, has cumed nearly $4.9 million, a strong gross for an arthouse drama. IFC Films’ docu “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” also acquired at Sundance, has $2.8 million.

The bigger players, like Focus, Fox Searchlight, Summit Entertainment and the Weinstein Co., will focus on acquiring titles with possibly more commerical potential, such as Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” or the Will Ferrell topliner “Everything Must Go.”

However, Searchlight and Focus already have crowded slates for the remaining of the year.

Sony Pictures Classics, Roadside and Samuel Goldwyn will have their shopping bags ready, focusing on more arthouse-oriented titles, such as Dustin Hoffman starrer “Barney’s Version.”

Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s company should be in a better position, having completed a debt restructuring. TWC COO David Glasser says the fact that there are fewer buyers makes it an “especially opportunistic time.”

Smaller indie distribs, led by

IFC Films and Magnolia, have found a workable business model that has made them some of the most active buyers at fests, buying up docus, foreign pics and arthouse fare to release theatrically and on first-run VOD.

Music Box Films has made specialty hits from some titles that weren’t acquired at festivals, such as “Tell No One,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” while Oscilloscope also uses simultaneous VOD releases.

Even with the uncertainty facing the indie biz, buyers and sellers are upbeat about Venice, Telluride and Toronto, predicting there will be enough activity — between premieres and acquisitions — to make this year more notable than last.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more