Buyers playing waiting game reap rewards

High-profile pics look beyond the market for a home

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Toronto Intl. Film Festival

With the cooling of the independent film business, festival fever isn’t as hot as it used to be. Sure, the occasional finished film — “The Kids Are All Right,” “Catfish” — sparks heated interest among several suitors. But just as common are those high-profile films that don’t find desirable homes during a festival — “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Biutiful” — and end up seeking other distribution avenues or waiting out the market for another day.

Veteran distribution executives say the fall festival season promises to be a busy one, with plenty of companies on the look out for new talent. But the days of a hyped-up festival premiere followed in the wee hours of the morning by a gang of bloodthirsty buyers offering seven-figure advances and ample P&A commitments is now, of course, a rare occurrence. Rather, today’s marketplace extends far beyond festivals’ opening and closing night galas.

“I don’t think there’s that stigma on a finished film playing at a festival and not getting picked up,” says National Geographic Films’ Daniel Battsek. “We’re seeing more often films that don’t get acquired, but that’s not the end of the story. There’s the feeling that the festival isn’t the only place; the game isn’t over.”

As an example, he cites “Sunshine Cleaning,” a 2008 Sundance pass that was acquired more than a month later by Overture Films and eventually proved profitable when released more than a year later.

Rather than the impulse purchases of the past, “buying movies is more of an intellectual process,” says Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard. “More and more, we’re seeing the movies before, and having deep discussions with the filmmakers about why they made their movie and who they made their movie for. It’s much more involved.”

Tracking and acquiring movies has always been a year-round pursuit, culminating at the major markets. But operating quite successfully to the contrary, Music Box Films has made a veritable bounty picking up films that never played at the major festivals, such as 2008’s “Tell No One” and this year’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (it also has distribution rights for the next two in that series).

“We don’t allow the preferences and biases of festival programmers to dictate our acquisition strategy,” says Music Box Films’ Ed Arentz. “Sometimes, there’s an expectation that certain directors’ films are better and take up slots, but that’s not always the case.”

Arentz points to their recent Cannes acquisition, the French political satire “Le nom des gens.”

“Neither Toronto nor Telluride decided to program it, but I don’t think I’ll see a better film,” he says.

Still, most industry executives acknowledge the standard operating procedure of the fall festival marketplace remains in effect for select titles, gaining momentum in Venice and Telluride and closing a deal in Toronto; i.e., “The Hurt Locker,” “The Wrestler,” “A Single Man.”

Focus Features’ James Schamus says Toronto continues to be a key place to launch titles. “There’s no question about it,” he says. “It’s the center of our universe.”

While Schamus acknowledges that certain films create a level of “noise” at Toronto that may distract buyers, he says that overall “the titles that deserve the attention get the attention. I think it’s still functioning pretty well.”

But Schamus also points to other satellite markets. “Clearly, SXSW has a role to play right now, and the AFM is a place where deals are sealed. I think acquisitions tend to be a year-round perspective.”

Particularly with the pending growth in VOD and other digital distribution avenues, companies could be scouring any and all markets more closely. Newmarket’s Chris Ball, for instance, says the company is on the verge of “creating a number of labels where we can acquire films not only theatrically for Newmarket but films direct to VOD or DVD, creating different labels for different films.”

Indeed, with their plentiful platforms, day-and-date distribs IFC Films and Magnolia will most certainly be leading the way once again in the purchasing of finished films.

“We’re really stepping up a bit,” says IFC Films’ Arianna Bocco, “because we need good quality films, and the model is working, so there will be a continuation and an escalation of what we’ve already been doing.”

But major fest-specific paydays will continue to be the exception, not the rule.

As National Geo’s Battsek says, “You have to be sure that you’re getting the right price, because there’s no safety net now.”