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Bidders light up

'Smoking' finds two matches in Toronto

TORONTO — A fierce bidding war at the Toronto Film Fest over writer-helmer Jason Reitman’s comedy “Thank You for Smoking” has left two distribs — Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics — both contending they own the film.

In the fest’s first weekend, with plenty of high-profile films up for grabs, buzz began circulating Saturday night that Par Classics had shelled out $6.5 million for “Smoking” in a multi-territory deal. Execs from the studio — some of whom were in town to support Par’s “Elizabethtown” — were even seen on the party circuit accepting congratulations from industryites on picking up the pic.

But after turning in for the night, the Par team was informed Sunday morning that “Smoking” had actually been sold to Fox Searchlight in the wee hours.

Fox Searchlight issued a press release Sunday afternoon saying it had landed worldwide rights, excluding Italy, France, Benelux, Switzerland and Scandinavia.

“We’re incredibly proud that ‘Smoking’ is our debut film, and we’re thrilled to be partners with Fox Searchlight,” pic’s tyro producer David Sacks said in a statement issued by Searchlight. “Jason, the cast and crew did an amazing job bringing the film to the screen and our experience at Toronto has been a dream come true.”

But that dream seemed to be a bit murky Sunday, at least to Par Classics.

Toppers Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein insisted they had a handshake deal in place with Sacks and his reps at William Morris Independent, and that the pic could not go to another distrib.

“We own the movie,” Vitale and Dinerstein said. “We are looking forward to working with Jason Reitman and the film. But we are dealing with a new, fresh producer in the movie business. This is the first time he’s done this.”

Sacks launched Room 9 in 2003 after serving as chief operating officer of online payment service PayPal, which was bought by auction site eBay.

A Searchlight rep countered Par Classics’ claims, saying, “The fact is that we have a signed deal. We believe that we’re the distributors of the film, and the producers agree. We issued a joint announcement. In the heat of the festival, there are a lot of companies vying for different films. And we are thrilled we have this one.”

Who signed what when?

People close to the deal said Par Classics — after meeting with the film’s reps for five hours — had agreed on deal points with a handshake agreement that Par says could not be changed while paperwork was being drafted. But those close to the filmmakers say that, with a verbal agreement and no signed contract, the door was left open.

Par and Searchlight previously teamed on indie hit “Napoleon Dynamite,” and people close to the “Smoking” deal said Sunday that William Morris was trying to hammer out a pact that might bring the two parties together on this pic.

The quagmire reflects the hit-and-run way in which pacts are made at fests, amid marathon negotiations in hotel suites and cutthroat competition. One seller said it’s actually rare to have a deal at a fest papered immediately, and that handshake agreements or deals scrawled on cocktail napkins are an accepted way of doing business. “People don’t realize, it’s not like a real estate deal,” he said.

But an acquisitions exec for a mini-major said their policy is, “Never leave the room till it’s signed. That’s the way we’ve been trained,” she said.

Last-second twists and turns are common during fest negotiations, but an instance in which two companies publicly contend they own a picture isn’t, and the controversy had acquisition and distribution execs buzzing.

Legal action possible

Sources said Par, upon learning of the reversal of fortune, is miffed enough to explore taking legal action, but Vitale and Dinerstein would say only that they consider themselves the film’s distrib.

Ensemble laffer — starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall and David Koechner — follows Eckhart as a spinmeister for the Academy of Tobacco Studies who faces a crisis of confidence. Based on Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel, pic was adapted for the screen by Reitman.

“Smoking,” a rare comedy project on the fest circuit among a raft of heavy indie dramas, preemed Friday as a special presentation and quickly gained attention from distribs, including Par, HBO and New Line’s Picturehouse, Focus and Searchlight. Par and Searchlight were left to duke it out when bids began hitting the $5 million mark.

“Smoking” was exec produced by ContentFilm’s Ed Pressman, John Schmidt and Alessandro Camon, with Michael Beugg.

The move to buy “Smoking” would put Peter Rice-headed Searchlight back in the spotlight. The mini-major was oddly silent at Sundance after a breakout year, letting Par nab the headlines by picking up the John Singleton-produced “Hustle & Flow.” Under Tom Freston and Brad Grey, Par has been retooling its classics division into a more Searchlight-like entity. The label released “Flow” with MTV and the docu “Mad Hot Ballroom” with Nickelodeon.

“Smoking” is one of just a few films to create heat here so far.

Other anticipated pics, including Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland” and Joshua Michael Stern’s “Neverwas,” failed to generate much interest but are predicted to sell once the fest winds down.

Other deals in works

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Classics was homing in on Tommy Lee Jones’ directing effort, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” while Tartan scooped up U.S. and U.K. rights to Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.”

Away from the fest, Bob and Harvey Weinstein sealed a pact with “Wolf Creek” helmer Greg McLean to distrib worldwide his next pic, “Rogue,” which is in pre-production. Pic, about a killer crocodile, will be released next year through Dimension Films. Aussie helmer McLean — who will write, direct and produce, as he did on “Wolf Creek” — is currently casting. “Creek” was a Sundance standout.

SPC is hammering out a deal to buy “Burials” from EuropaCorp. Pic, which won nods for actor (Jones) and screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga) in Cannes, is set in the border area of Cibolo County, Texas, and stars Barry Pepper as a new arrival to the hard-pressed Border Patrol. Pic was produced by Jones with Michael Fitzgerald, Luc Besson and Pierre-Ange Le Pogam.

The Sony arm also was said to be circling Andrucha Waddington’s “House of Sand.”

Tartan’s buy, “Lady Vengeance,” played the Venice film fest and will head to the New York film fest after its Toronto run.

Another film generating heat but yet to screen is the South African Oscar entry “Tsotsi,” by Gavin Hood. Pic screened at the Edinburgh fest and began building buzz among the U.S. specialty execs who attended. The Weinsteins had been in talks to buy the pic, but those negotiations apparently fell through and a bevy of suitors — including Disney’s Miramax label — is interested.

Also generating interest are the Cate Blanchett starrer “Little Fish” and docus “The Heart of the Game” and “Sketches of Frank Gehry.”

High-profile pics screening Sunday included David Ayer’s “Harsh Times,” starring Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez and Eva Longoria.

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