Sluggish Toronto sees surprise buys

Summit picks up Bigelow's 'Hurt Locker'

There were signs of life in Toronto’s sluggish acquisitions market on Wednesday as IFC made a surprise acquisition of all U.S. distribution rights to Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” while Summit snapped up domestic theatrical rights to Kathryn Bigelow’s war action-thriller “The Hurt Locker.”

IFC said it will stick with Soderbergh’s vision and keep the ambitious Che Guevera biopic as two standalone films. Spanish-language pics, toplining Benicio Del Toro and running a total of four hours, will play back-to-back in a one-week awards run in December in New York and L.A., separated by an intermission. A month later, the first installment, “The Argentine,” will open in limited markets and simultaneously be made available on video-on-demand. Second half, “The Guerrilla,” will be released after Oscar noms are announced.

“The Hurt Locker” and “Che” deals came as Toronto wound down, with most studio specialty arms and indie distribs leaving the fest empty-handed. Buyers saw plenty of titles they liked, but considering the general downturn at the specialty box office, they are being particularly conservative — a trend that has plagued the fest circuit since last year’s edition of Toronto.

Summit and Fox Searchlight stood out by writing checks for the two most-buzzed about titles at the fest, “Hurt Locker” and Darren Aronofsky’s Mickey Rourke starrer “The Wrestler.”

Searchlight picked up North American distrib rights to “Wrestler” earlier in the week for between $3.5 million and $4 million; Summit reportedly paid about $1.2 million for rights to “Hurt Locker.” Bigelow pic revolves around a U.S. military bomb detonating unit in Baghdad.

“Hurt Locker,” which won’t be released until next year and could be a summer title, distinguishes itself from the recent crop of failed Iraqi war pics in that it doesn’t have political overtones but is a traditional war film.

“This isn’t a social statement. This is a story that could have been set in any war,” Summit’s Rob Friedman said.

“Che” debuted at Cannes to a mixed reception. Two immediate obstacles for U.S. buyers were the length and foreign language. Since then, Soderbergh has cut a total of 12 minutes from the companion films and reorganized the first installment.

Following the exclusive December awards run in New York and Los Angeles, “Che” will be funneled through IFC’s day-and-date distribution arm, IFC in Theaters. Company says making films available on VOD concurrent with a theatrical release has been profitable. At the same time, it is able to keep a cap on marketing costs by opening a title in only a limited number of theaters. “Che” will also be distribbed through IFC’s exclusive vid rental deal with Blockbuster Video.

“If a movie is not an obvious studio release, there has to be an alternative. We’re more nimble, quicker and aggressive when we know there’s both short-term and long-term value. No studio wanted to be in a risk position with ‘Che,’ ” IFC prexy Jonathan Sehring said.

The sale of “Che” to IFC was the best-kept secret of the festival, since a deal for “Che” was pending with 2929 Entertainment’s Magnolia. But weeks of negotiating ended over Magnolia’s continued reluctance to release “Che” as two separate films.

IFC consummated its deal with Wild Bunch, which financed and repped the pic, during Toronto. Josh Sapan, CEO of Rainbow Media (the Cablevision unit that oversees IFC), joined the negotiations on Tuesday night. Sapan helped sell Wild Bunch on the idea that IFC would turn the December launch of “Che” into a roadshow of sorts. Rainbow owns high-profile venues Radio City Music Hall, the Zeigfeld Theater and IFC Center.

Producers say the U.S. is just one piece of the pie in achieving success for “Che.” They expect the biopic to do strong business in Europe and South America, where Che Guevera is an enduring, popular figure. This past weekend, “The Argentine” debuted at No. 1 in Spain, grossing $2.7 million.

Selling a film to IFC usually means a minimal advance and a modest marketing spend at best, Sehring admitted, “but as an organization, we are invested in this film working, and we know that it will work.”

Soderbergh has a long history with IFC and is a member of its advisory board. Company also financed his 1996 docu “Gray’s Anatomy.”

“Che,” which also plays the upcoming New York Film Festival, was produced by Laura Bickford and penned by Peter Buchman.

Summit also closed its deal to acquire theatrical distrib rights to “The Hurt Locker” in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Voltage Pictures repped the film, which focuses on a military bomb squad whose members face life-or-death situations on a daily basis.

Jeremy Renner, Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes star in the film, which is loosely based on the experiences of journalist Mark Boal. Boal was embedded for Playboy magazine with a bomb unit in Baghdad.

“Hurt Locker” sparked keen interest among buyers for its intense action and characters, led by Renner’s performance. Buyers said it’s commercial enough to warrant a wide release.

Summit has been busy throughout the fest. Just as it was closing its deal for “Hurt Locker,” it preemed Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz; that pic opens in December. Summit is also getting plenty of attention for teen vampire tentpole “Twilight,” which unspools over Thanksgiving.

At the same time, Summit, like Searchlight, needs product. Both companies are pleased that they left Toronto with titles in hand.

IFC is always a busy player at festivals, primarily because it picks up smaller titles. Company also acquired Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moment,” which is expected to be Sweden’s Oscar submission.

Otherwise, the acquisition market has been slow going. A number of smaller films are in play, but many of those deals may not close until after the fest has ended.

(Sharon Swart and Michael Jones contributed to this report.)