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Arthouse crowd in cautious mood

Toronto may still prove a lively market

NEW YORK — When it comes to film acquisition, everybody’s favorite word these days is “caution,” thanks to the strikes that never happened, coupled with the continued economic downturn.

The Toronto Intl. Film Festival, which unspools Sept. 6-16, can be a hotbed of film buying — but this year, like last, the motivation of buyers remains a question.

Suggests USA Films chairman Scott Greenstein: So what if one leaves Toronto without snagging a film?

Though sellers want people to believe otherwise, no one is eager to shell out money just to fill their pipelines. Buying and selling has become a 12-month-a-year job. Getting caught up in the frenzy of the fest is a thing of the past.

New players

Still, Toronto may prove a lively market, with a host of new shingles — such as the newly formed ThinkFilm, IFC Films, a revived United Artists under the leadership of vet Bingham Ray, and Lot 47 Films — angling for attention and quality pics in the lower price ranges. The flashier classics shingles, meanwhile, have moved more squarely into making their own pics and launching them at fests like Toronto.

Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard — whose company comes into town unveiling eight upcoming releases — believes it will be a busy event, because there were few independent films made last year.

“There wasn’t much available in the spring and summer,” Bernard says. “Now, there’s a lot coming right out of the editing room. This is the first crop of post-strike independent films.”

IFC’s Bob Berney will be a player to watch: His sale last year of the Newmarket-financed “Memento” (distribbed by Newmarket and Alliance-Atlantis) helped establish IFC as a brand. Berney says parent company the Independent Film Channel provides the perfect outlet to cross-promote IFC pics.

As for distribution, Berney notes: “It’s always tight, it’s always tough. But you have to pick your dates. And in the independent marketplace you can find the gaps.”

Finding gaps

Finding and filling the gaps has become a buzz phrase. As the Shooting Gallery, Destination Films and others have collapsed and vanished, while ThinkFilm and Manhattan Pictures (to name but a few), have begun to acquire pics and may someday make them.

William Morris Agency Independent’s Cassian Elwes believes competition against major studio releases — powered into the marketplace by millions of advertising dollars — has put more pressure on the smaller films.

But, he says: “I do believe there is a sophisticated audience out there which is interested in seeing quality films.” Moreover, Elwes notes that Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and others have learned as well as the studios how to recognize and support their hits.

Dan Talbot, owner of New Yorker Films as well as Gotham’s preeminent arthouse theater, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, believes megaplexes that show specialty films are faltering. But he doesn’t sense a crisis.

“The overall quality of films is down,” he acknowledges. “But that doesn’t mean that we are at the end of cinema!”

Talbot, who will be in Toronto scouting for product to program his hardtop, notes that the past year has been far from a disaster: In addition to “Memento,” which is headed into its 26th week at Lincoln Plaza, this year’s successes include Fox Searchlight’s “Sexy Beast” and Fine Line’s “The Anniversary Party.”

“I don’t think anything gets short shrift these days,” Talbot says. “Everything of value gets shown.”

There are those who beg to differ. Gotham-based shingle Double A Films’ Andrew Fierberg laments: “The $1 million-$3 million pic doesn’t really have a chance to survive in the domestic marketplace. Sure you can sell off foreign rights on certain films, but it’s really tough. People want a star in the film.”

Which is one of the reasons why so many celebs and their publicists parade through Toronto: the event has steadily risen in profile as a convenient, user-friendly site to launch one’s films, attract positive reviews and generate world-of-mouth.

And, as Elwes notes, at least the cell phones work there.

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