Fox Searchlight pins down ‘Wrestler’

Studio wins bidding war over Aronofsky film

Distribs began digging into their pockets Monday as the Toronto Film Festival neared the midway point.

Fox Searchlight’s pickup of “The Wrestler” for just under $4 million ended a sluggish deal climate in the event’s opening days despite a positive response to many films.

Searchlight prevailed in an intense wee-hours bidding war for Darren Aronofsky’s pic, which just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The Mickey Rourke starrer is also slated as the closing-night title at the New York Film Festival in October.

As news of the buy blinked across BlackBerry screens across town early Monday and CAA’s rooftop party at the Hyatt raged on, many dealmakers felt a much-needed shot of energy.

“Everyone was waiting for that one to go,” Cinetic’s Matt Dentler said. “So now they can loosen the purse strings.”

Buyers were circling a range of titles Monday evening. Searchlight, the company of the hour, was reportedly among those interested in family fantasy pic “The Secret of Moonacre.” The movie is directed by Gabor Csupo, who helmed “Bridge to Terabithia” and created mega-selling toon “The Rugrats.”

Other films generating buyer interest include the inspirational LeBron James high school basketball doc “More Than a Game”; the backstage “Chorus Line” musical doc “Every Little Step”; and the controversial IRA drama “50 Dead Men Walking,” starring Jim Sturgess.

“Skin,” starring Sophie Okonedo and Sam Neill and based on the true story of a black girl born to white parents, has also drawn interest. It sold in several territories and, according to sales rep Little Film Co., impressed Oprah Winfrey; Winfrey screened it at her Leadership Academy for Girls in Johannesburg and plans to lend support.

Pic sold to UGCPH for France as well as to distribs for Greece, Scandinavia and Benelux.

In its latest fest pickup, IFC grabbed Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moments.” The celebrated filmmaker was feted with a retrospective at Telluride that included a screening of the pic. Troell’s film is slated for release in 2009 via IFC’s simultaneous theatrical and video-on-demand strategy.

After the packed screening of “The Wrestler” at Toronto’s Elgin on Sunday night, interested buyers huddled on the street and then made their way to the Four Seasons Hotel to offer bids and pitch release plans.On Monday afternoon, though, the buzz had built up in the festival bubble to the point that a packed press-and-industry screening elicited only limited applause. Viewers seemed satisfied on the whole but had to try not to let their expectations get out of hand given the news of the deal and the acclaim in Venice.

A further twist is that the film is a stylistically restrained outing for Aronofsky, known for the brio of acclaimed indies “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” and studio misfire “The Fountain.”

Wild Bunch’s Agnes Mentre and Vincent Maraval, who financed the film, ran the meetings with CAA reps and Aronofsky, who had a strong say in which company would handle the pic.

There were multiple bids besides Searchlight’s: Lionsgate, Overture and Weinstein Co. were in the running, while other buyers who didn’t call fast enough were told they were too late to enter the fray. The pact closed at 2 a.m., but deal points weren’t finalized until later in the morning.

Bleary-eyed CAAers then had to rally for a 12:30 screening Monday of Jennifer Aniston-Steve Zahn romantic comedy “Management.” Initially set for release through MGM, the pic reverted to producer Sidney Kimmel and is now for sale again.

Initial reactions to screenings Sunday and Monday have been moderate, though Aniston’s star wattage would seem to make it a likely pickup no matter its reception.

Aronofsky has long been a fan of Searchlight, he said Monday at the Four Seasons, where he and Rourke, still recovering from the latenight Park Hyatt celebration of the film’s success and co-star Evan Rachel Wood’s 21st birthday, were conducting interviews. “We want the film to be seen by as many people as can see it,” Aronofsky said. “Fox Searchlight can help make that happen. I seem to always make films that are challenging to market.”

For Searchlight, the pic is a welcome addition regardless of the risks. The specialty arm’s slate needed some fortifying.

Upon wrapping the deal, Searchlight topper Peter Rice called “The Wrestler” an “unbelievably electrifying and compelling tale with tour de force performances.”

(Pamela McClintock, Michael Jones, Jennie Punter and Sharon Swart contributed to this story.)