Stars light up Toronto

Deals rolling at film festival

A packed weekend at the Toronto Film Festival brought a handful of deals, some breakout preems and a parade of top-tier stars in full junket mode.

No transaction really stole the limelight, but the deals included the following:

  • Helen Hunt’s directorial debut, “Then She Found Me,” went to ThinkFilm for $2 million, with $1 million more from Canadian distrib TVA Films. Sources indicated interest from the Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate, but TWC insisted it never made a formal offer for the pic, which stars Hunt, Bette Midler and Colin Firth.

On the morning of the news of her deal, Hunt admitted her “naivete is terrifying” when it comes to the intricacies behind the distribution pact made for the film. She added that it’s a small movie and “it really should be seen that way. The only reason well-known actors showed up is because I begged them.”

Pic received a standing ovation on Friday night. Hunt called it “unbelievable. It was the most moving thing because everything I care about is in this movie.”

  • The Weinstein Co. grabbed British drama “Boy A” and Spanish horror pic “El rey de la montana” (The King of the Hill). The former is a Channel Four production helmed by John Crowley (“Intermission”) and starring Andrew Garfield and Peter Mullen.

  • Strand Releasing brought in “Avant que j’oublie” (Before I Forget), a Toronto title that also screened in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.

Still pending Sunday evening were potential deals on “Nothing Is Private,” “Battle in Seattle,” “In Bloom” and “The Visitor.” All preemed Saturday and drew divided reactions. Especially given the presence of new North American buyers looking for wide releases, some titles with a decidedly indie pedigree elicited a brisk “It’s not for us.”

Among the Gala preems of spoken-for films, Focus Features’ “Eastern Promises” seemed to persuade nearly everybody, with hosannas coming from critics and crowd alike for David Cronenberg’s gangster tale.

That was welcome news for Focus, already celebrating the Venice Golden Lion win for Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.” Focus has four heavyweight titles (“Eastern,” “Lust, Caution,” “Reservation Road” and “Atonement”) coming before year’s end, and all are receiving Gala treatment in Toronto. As for pickups, Focus was one of several companies said to be in the bidding for “The Visitor,” Tom McCarthy’s deeply felt drama with an immigration theme.

George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett made it over from Venice in time to tubthump “Michael Clayton,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” respectively.Pitt and Blanchett eschewed attending the Venice closing ceremony, where they both picked up thesp prizes, in favor of attending the North American preems of their projects.

While the press confabs for both “Clayton” and “James” attempted to veer away from political discussion — in a marked contrast from corresponding events at Venice where Euro journos railed against the evils of corporate greed and globalization — Blanchett delivered the line of the fest so far at the “Elizabeth” confab, quipping about her character, “She traveled even less than George Bush.”

Pic is the second installment of Shekhar Kapur’s perceived trilogy on the life and times of Queen Elizabeth I. The action this time centers on the monarch’s relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh and her successful 16th century defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal were among the stars in town for the big bow of “Rendition.” The New Line release didn’t wow everybody but received several upbeat reviews and a warm response at Roy Thomson Hall.

Kazakh-Russian co-production “Mongol,” from Russian helmer Sergei Bodrov, also made a splash with its epic retelling of the first chapters in the life of Genghis Khan. While “Borat” stole the show at last year’s fest with his faux-Kazakh lampoonery, the Kazakhs have struck back with their own $17.5 million pic, which will make an Oscar-qualifying run late this year before a full domestic rollout by Picturehouse in early 2008. Pic comes out in Kazakhstan and Russia on 400 prints by the end of September.

“‘Borat’ was an unbeatable Kazakh movie, but I think the Kazakhs now have more of a sense of humor,” said Bodrov. “They were really upset in the beginning. They couldn’t believe why this was happening to their country. Now they want to give him a prize for promoting Kazakhstan. One of the reasons we got the money for the film from Kazakhstan was they wanted to show people something different about their country.

“They realized they had to do something about it.”

(Sharon Swart, Anne Thompson, John Hopewell and Mike Jones contributed to this report.)

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