'District 9' offers building block for global goals

When Sony’s acquisitions arm walked away from the Toronto Film Festival with one of the event’s prized titles, the thriller “Insidious” — bought following an early-morning bidding war — observers quickly framed the deal as akin to another of the studio’s buys that later paid off: “District 9.”

But Steven Bersch, prexy of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, cautions that the first major purchase under his solo tenure shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the division’s strategy is simply to copy the playbook of what’s worked already.

In fact, the division seems to be trying to stay ahead of a market of ever-changing tastes, scarcity of money among independent counterparts and increasing demands for more marketable product.

“It was a film that we loved, and the only major purchase for us from Toronto,” Bersch says of “Insidious,” which does not yet have a domestic release date.

He adds, “We’re not limited. If I find the right horror or comedy, I do it, but it’s got to be something attractive and marketable.”

Acquisitions arms have been critical to the studios’ bottom lines for some time, often as the source of unexpected breakout hits in a universe driven by high-concept tentpole bets. Sony’s division had been undergoing gradual changes even before Bersch became lone acquisitions topper in June.

The branch’s busy pipeline of more than 100 films and original projects in 2007 has tapered to some 60 titles this year, according to the studio. The slowdown is a sign of the times industrywide, in which studios are taking fewer risks.

While in the past studios been seen as competing with independent distributors for pickups, now they’re becoming more of an ally, providing an crucial pillar of support for U.S. specialty distribs who need additional commitments to be able to acquire independent films in this difficult climate. Companies including FilmDistrict and Samuel Goldwyn are utilizing this base of support.

“Soul Surfer,” for example, will go out April 15 through TriStar and FilmDistrict, with Sony handling substantial overseas rights. The story of the shark attack on young surfer Bethany Hamilton was the catalyst for the partnership between Sony and FilmDistrict, which launched in September.

The CEO of FilmDistrict, Peter Schlessel, helped grow the Sony division during his tenure. He’s now also a bridge between the two companies, with plans for FilmDistrict to partner with TriStar and other Sony labels.

“Our dealings with the independent film world is in trying to bring those projects into the studio world,” Bersch says. “We don’t try to limit our channels.”

Other titles the division is involved with include faith-based pic “Courageous,” set to bow on Sept. 30, and Luc Besson’s 2012 actioner “Lockout.”

Last month, Sony acquisitions bought ancillary rights to docu “Exporting Raymond,” which Samuel Goldwyn will distribute theatrically in March.

Sony Acquisitions partnered with Samuel Goldwyn on October title “Welcome to the Rileys,” and with Strand Releasing for the Australian drama “Red Hill” on Nov. 5.

“Insidious” is from “Saw” writer-director James Wan and the producers of “Paranormal Activity,” Oren Peli and Jason Blum. Those ties surely will be a marketing boon, as will the pic’s storyline about a family haunted by vengeful spirits. Sony is looking for the same kind of sequel possibilities that Paramount tapped with “Paranormal.”

The division also is increasing its overseas presence, Bersch says. “A larger studio footprint, taking out 60%-80% of international has become very attractive.”

Bersch says the studio is increasingly interested in multi-territory deals.

“We’re trying not to buy select territories,” Bersch adds. “We feel like we can’t bring the muscle of the studio to a two- or three-territory launch.”

The aquisitions arm nabbed a bevy of international territories for Focus Features’ Joe Wright-helmed “Hanna,” set for release next year, and is currently repping overseas rights for “Machete” and “Faster,” with respective distribs 20th Century Fox and CBS Films handling domestic rights.

Large-scale overseas rollouts also can help boost marketing efforts by positioning talent tours and cohesive launch dates. Bersch points to the 2009 overseas bow of “Terminator Salvation,” for which Sony handled the majority of international markets, as an ideal back-end strategy with “one creative look from a home office that territories can tailor.”

Even money spent on the homevid front can benefit from a wide international release, Bersch notes, with multiple language tracks able to fit on one DVD.

The other prong of the division’s focus is handling ancillary rights. Under this umbrella is Stage 6 Films (named for the soundstage where “Wizard of Oz” was shot), a production label with a sturdy biz in theatrical followups like “Daddy Day Camp” “The Boondock Saints 2″ and “Stomp the Yard: Homecoming.”

The decline in DVD sales has posed additional challenges for the label, though Bersch says no more so for his division than the rest of the biz.

“From the domestic ancillary business, (the decline has) definitely impacted what we’ll buy,” Bersch admits. “But it’s still a very big business.”

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