Buyers aggressively pursue Toronto titles

Sales activity at the Toronto Film Festival has been matching the balmy temps and picking up impressively as two dozen titles wound up with U.S. distribution, many planning a multi-platform release.

Besides cop thriller “The Place Beyond the Pines” — the biggest TIFF sale at an estimated $3 million to Focus — other significant films that found homes included Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Kristen Wiig comedy “Imo- gene,” Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Greta Gerwig vehicle “Frances Ha” and Spike Lee’s in-production “Oldboy” remake — and justified the bullish view of the indie-financed projects.

Once “Pines” sold Saturday night, other deals began closing. “It’s been a good market with of lots of sales and a lot that will finish in the next few weeks,” said WME Global head Graham Taylor on Thursday.

Jessica Lacy, head of the international and independent department at ICM Partners, who negotiated for filmmakers on “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” said it’s important to find the right distribution platform, which often means incorporating a strong VOD component enabling the film to be seen by a larger audience than it would with a traditional theatrical release. “This also ultimately increases the filmmakers’ backend,” she said. ICM has been fielding offers for Brian De Palma’s “Passion” and Rola Nashef’s “Detroit Unleaded.” Lacy said she expects deals to close on both within the next week or two.

Geoff Gilmore of Tribeca Films, which acquired “How to Make Money Selling Drugs” and “Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” said buyers’ aggression was warranted.

“We are looking for more,” he added. “It’s been really competitive for buyers because there are now more companies in distribution. Prices have been going up compared to a few years ago and part has to do with new revenue streams from digital becoming viable.”

Lionsgate — bolstered this year by the breakout success of “The Hunger Games” and acquiring “Twilight” owner Summit — was particularly active with four titles purchased in two days for release through its Roadside Attractions partner — “Much Ado,” “Imogene,” sex-addiction comedy “Thanks for Sharing” and Sarah Polley’s doc “Stories We Tell.”

FilmNation topper Glen Basner — who sold a pair of Eli Roth films (“Aftershock” and “Klown”) — said the Lionsgate/Roadside purchases will elevate Roadside’s profile along with underlining the growing diversity in distribution.

“Companies like Roadside, A24 and Millennium are moving from micro into specialty distribution,” he said.

Lionsgate closed the four deals while its top brass was in Toronto for the company’s annual shareholders meeting. CEO Jon Feltheimer declared that the promise of digital dollars had arrived with “The Hunger Games,” while trumpeting the company’s commitment to young-adult projects and forecasting a $1 billion domestic theatrical gross this year — which would make Lionsgate the first non-major ever to hit that milestone. And on Wednesday, Lionsgate announced it had dated potential franchise starter “Divergent” for March 21, 2014, even though the project has no director or cast yet.

With less fanfare, IFC matched Lionsgate with a quartet of deals.  “We were very aggressive and clear about wanting to work with these filmmakers,” said IFC senior VP acquisitions and productions Arianna Bocco, referring to the directors of “Byzantium,” “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Frances Ha.”

Bocco agreed the Toronto market felt more competitive this year,

“We came to Toronto prepared for that, because we knew there were many new companies out there that need films,” she said. “Toronto is known for its high volume of high quality films and we weren’t disappointed — when you have to miss a screening because of a conflict, then you have a conflict with its next screening it makes for a very intense environment.”

On the opening day of TIFF, fast-growing Exclusive Media made a major splash by announcing the launch of a U.S. distribution and acquisitions arm headed by Scott Pascucci as president and Matt Brodlie as head of acquisitions. Exclusive Releasing plans to theatrically distribute three to four wide and platform releases per year.

“There’s a real camaraderie in the distribution business, so we’ve gotten a very positive response because people who do this know that it isn’t easy,” said Exclusive Media prez Alex Walton.

There were still plenty of unsold titles as of Thursday evening — Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” Rola Nashef’s “Detroit Unleaded,” Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children,” Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa” and Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.” And Preferred Content managing partner Kevin Iwashina confirmed high-level studio interest with offers on the table for JT Petty’s 3D exorcism comedy “Hellbenders,” which world-preemed in Toronto Midnight strand Sunday night.

“I feel there is a real optimism on the buyers’ part to find movies they like,” Iwashina said. “Even if some of the top buyers didn’t acquire something here, it doesn’t mean they weren’t satisfied.  The quality of films, as expected, was at a very high level and consistent.

“You have to remember this is a cultural event for the public, and the films are programmed for audiences not buyers,” he added. “That said, there is a real market environment now that people have settled into the festival’s downtown home.”

Several prominent buyers such as Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and CBS Films — which paid $5 million at last year’s TIFF for “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” — had not yet made a move. FilmDistrict, which is distributing opening-night pic “Looper” through Sony, did not buy any finished films but made a flashy move when it bought U.S. rights to Spike Lee’s remake of “Oldboy.”

“We saw some intriguing films but nothing that fit what we need,” said Peter Schlessel, FilmDistrict topper. “We think ‘Oldboy’ is a viable wide-release film the way that ‘Drive’ was — something that’s auteur-driven with nothing like it in the marketplace.”

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