Toronto festival films hot, deals not

Fest a success as launch pad for fall films

As the 32nd Toronto Film Festival heads into its Saturday closing, it seems clear that the event was a big success as a launch pad for fall films — but as a center of hot deals, not so much.

While a host of buyers were clamoring for pics to buy, the pickings were slim.

“We were looking for a needle in a haystack, but we didn’t find anything,” Paramount Vantage prexy John Lesher said. “Most, if not all, of the good movies at the fest were accounted for. But there was strong product with which to build awareness.”

Studios like Warner Bros. brought in star power to launch such mainstream pics as Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One,” starring Jodie Foster, and Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” starring George Clooney. The indies and specialty subsids also took advantage of the assembled press corps.

Focus Features and Working Title enjoyed a strong Toronto. They shared in the lavish praise afforded to Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” which stirred kudos buzz and served as a reminder of Toronto’s role as a key stop in campaigns.

“There are only ever a maximum of 10 decent films in one year, and we’ve done this enough times to be able to say when one of our own is one of the 10,” said Working Title co-topper Tim Bevan, who also had Cate Blanchett-starrer “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” preeming at the fest.

Focus managed the double whammy of seeing an acclaimed world preem for David Cronenberg’s violent Russian mafia thriller “Eastern Promises” nearly simultaneous with the Golden Lion win at Venice for Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.”

With Terry George’s ethical drama “Reservation Road” also preeming, Focus’ slate was full. Focus didn’t pick up anything at Toronto; in fact, it hasn’t acquired a film in over a year and a half.

That’s something topper James Schamus wants to change, although “Toronto is not the place to do it,” he said. “It’s been an existential pleasure. We’re not a factory, but if there’s a good film, we want to make it happen. There are so many good films out there, and we’re so consumed with the movies we’re making, but we want to be in that marketplace.”

Fox Searchlight boasted what was arguably the fest’s most popular title, Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” starring Jennifer Garner, Ellen Page and new “it boy” Michael Cera. Described by some as this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno” establishes the Reitman scion as a topnotch director.

Paramount Vantage also scored with Sean Penn’s survival adventure “Into the Wild,” starring Emile Hirsch. Noah Baumbach’s dark family comedy “Margot at the Wedding,” starring Nicole Kidman as an unhappily destructive woman reminiscent of Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment,” found both admirers and detractors. It looks to be a small-scale arthouse venture for the label.

Of the nine pics that Sony Pictures Classics brought to Toronto, Robin Swicord’s chick lit pic “The Jane Austen Book Club,” Jonathan Demme’s doc “Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains” and the animated “Persepolis” were best received.

Picturehouse’s Bob Berney “saw nothing I liked for our slate that wasn’t already acquired,” he said.

Picturehouse used the fest to launch four films, including David Schwimmer’s directing debut “Run, Fat Boy, Run”; J.A. Bayona’s thriller “The Orphanage”; and Sergei Bodrov’s Asian actioner “Mongol,” which Berney is considering giving a 2008 “Hero”-style wide release in April, unless Kazakhstan submits it for Oscar consideration. The Canadian period piece “Silk” fared less well with audiences and critics.

Indie producer Sidney Kimmel Entertainment gained in stature with fest breakout “Lars and the Real Girl,” an entertaining confection that should boost the fortunes of both director Craig Gillespie and star Ryan Gosling.

Bookending the fest with the first and most recent buys was ThinkFilm which started off by acquiring domestic rights to Helen Hunt’s audience-friendly drama “Then She Found Me” for $2 million. It was being chased by buyers including Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co. ThinkFilm paid the same figure late Thursday for domestic rights to Stuart Townsend’s political “Battle in Seattle.”

The Weinstein Co. picked up two smaller films, fest sleeper “Boy A,” directed by John Crowley, and “George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead.”

After much advance build-up for Alan Ball’s pedophile drama “Nothing Is Private,” Warner Independent Pictures eventually acquired North American rights for $1.25 million in possible partnership with Netflix, although that deal has not yet closed.

When they did not receive an offer they could not refuse, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment wound up giving Vadim Perelman’s “In Bloom,” starring Uma Thurman, to sister company Magnolia Pictures for domestic release.

Newcomer Overture Films made its mark by buying Groundswell and Participant’s heartfelt immigrant drama “The Visitor,” directed by Tom McCarthy.

Several titles were left unplucked at fest’s end, including “Bill” and David Auburn’s earnest “Girl in the Park.” Both are expected to find homes with smaller distribs after the festival concludes.

Miramax carried forth the critical kudos it picked up at Cannes with well-received bows for Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and Coen brothers western “No Country for Old Men.” The company also made a splash early on in the festival with the announcement of their $5 million acquisition of Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness.” Pic, which wasn’t actually playing at fest, had recently wrapped its Toronto shoot.

(Sharon Swart contributed to this report.)

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