Sony Classics going big in Toronto

Record nine films submitted to the festival

As the Toronto Film Festival gets under way today, Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard are bringing nine films to the fest, a record number for the company.

(Their previous high was eight.)

In fact, Barker and Bernard opted to acquire in advance two pics that were going to the fest so the company could get the full promo bang for its festival bucks. Sight unseen, SPC scooped up Channel Four’s “Brick Lane,” based on Monica Ali’s novel about a Bangladeshi woman in London, which they had been closely tracking.

“We were so close to investing in it,” said Barker. “We took a look at how well ‘The Namesake’ did.”

They screened Jonathan Demme’s controversial Jimmy Carter documentary “Man From Plains” before buying North American rights; Carter will fly into Toronto to walk the gala red carpet and do one Monday Q&A with students.

Pre-buying is one way to get ahead of the current sellers’ market that feeds inflated prices. “People are paying more for film rights than the entire film’s budget,” said Bernard.

“We used to buy many more Toronto films in previous years,” said Barker, who acquired Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” last year but passed on Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her” given the asking price.

Just in case something is right for their 2008 slate, Barker and Bernard will check out such high-profile English-language titles as Alan Ball’s “Nothing Is Private” and “In Bloom,” starring Uma Thurman; several promising documentaries, including Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World”; as well as films by French auteurs Eric Rohmer and Alain Corneau.

For decades the specialty film veterans have used the audience-friendly Toronto fest as a launchpad not only for their fall pictures and would-be Oscar contenders but for spring releases as well.

“It’s a great place to get the ball rolling,” said Barker. “It starts the campaign on a film. Whatever happens, you come out with knowledge about what kind of journalists like it, what exhibitors think and how the audience responded.”

SPC’s 2007 Toronto slate reflects the specialty label’s eclectic range of releases (about 20 a year), from the Sundance documentary acquisition “My Kid Could Paint That” to the gala North American premiere of Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” remake, starring press-friendly thesps Jude Law and Michael Caine (who last attended the fest with “The Quiet American”). SPC pre-bought about half the world on the film.

Other movies going out this fall include “The Jane Austen Book Club,” scribe-turned-helmer Robin Swicord’s adaptation of the chick lit bestseller, starring a female-friendly ensemble cast led by Maria Bello and Emily Blunt, which Sony Pictures Classics financed for $7 million. SPC is following the same platform release pattern it employed for “Friends With Money,” which opened limited and widened two weeks later.

The animated Cannes entry “Persepolis” is SPC’s likeliest Oscar contender this year; the company prebought North American and Latin American rights to the Marjane Satrapi-Vincent Paronnaud film during pre-production over a year ago. Acquired at Cannes was “Band’s Visit,” which could be Israel’s submission for foreign-language film. Out of Berlin, SPC acquired Austria’s official Oscar submission, “The Counterfeiters,” which debuted strongly over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Telluride also saw the launch of Anand Tucker’s father-son drama “And When Did You Last See Your Father,” starring Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent, and the extreme sports ski doc “Steep,” which SPC scooped up after execs viewed footage at the Tribeca fest.

“There’s no better way for films to be discovered,” said Barker. “If not everyone discovers ‘Brick Lane’ or ‘Band’s Visit,’ there’s plenty of time later on. It’s a win-win, an ideal way to set up your film.”

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