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Buyers in Toronto change it up

Looking for something different this year

What are buyers looking for in Toronto amid a rising tide of optimism? That’s a complicated question.

With majors cutting back on production slates, distribution pipelines have been freed up for indies to exploit with low-to-mid-range budget films.

Amber Entertainment and Haxan Films — the banner behind “The Blair Witch Project” — believe buyers can’t get enough horror, and rather than sell off foreign rights, they’ve fully financed “Lovely Molly,” formerly dubbed “The Possession.”

“It’s a calculated risk, but we think we’ll come out much better with an unencumbered film,” said Amber’s Jane Fleming. “We think that we can do far more on international sales than we saw in the estimates.”

Amber and Haxan shot “Lovely Molly” in Maryland last fall with “Blair Witch” director Eduardo Sanchez helming from a script he co-wrote with Jamie Nash. Story explores the thin line between demonic possession and psychosis. Robin Cowie and Gregg Hale are producing for Haxan and Mark Ordesky and Fleming are producing for Amber. WME is handling sales at Toronto.

Haxan carries the pedigree from “The Blair Witch Project,” which took in more than $140 million domestically in 1999 as an indie horror sensation, thanks to a variety of viral marketing campaigns. Worldwide the film grossed $250 million and the sequel did $48 million.

An eclectic mix of titles has emerged with elevated expectations for sales during Toronto — horror projects “You’re Next” and “The Awakening”; relationship dramas “360,” “Shame,” “Take This Waltz” and “Winnie,” police drama “Rampart,” enivronmental thriller “The Hunter”; and comedies “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding” and “Friends with Kids.”

Kirk D’Amico, CEO of Myriad Pictures, believes the answer is: “Genre films with the right cast, thrillers and well-priced action films. Cast is still crucial for sales.”

Nick Meyer of Sierra / Affinity believes there’s been a qualifed improvement in the outlook of buyers, and thinks Oren Moverman’s cop drama “Rampart” will draw significant interest.

“There has been a bounceback — but only if you put together the right movies,” he noted.

Susan Cavan, who produced “Take This Waltz” with director Sarah Polley, said that Polley (who also directed “Away From Her”) has been the crucial element in positioning the film for buyers so it stood apart. “Her success helped provide clarity in terms of sales,” she added.

Gersh’s Jay Cohen points to improvements in the VOD markets for indies as a potential spur for more acquisitions, along with the presence of more buyers in the form of newish distributors such as Open Road, FilmDistrict and Relativity.

“It gives everyone more breathing room,” Cohen adds. “That’s made it easier for equity players in that they can get the right slot. But you still have to make a movie that makes sense.”

Josh Braun, co-topper at sales/production hybrid Submarine Entertainment for the past decade, believes the indie sector is seeing a definite improvement in the outlook from recent years, with the success of titles like “Midnight in Paris” and a trio of docs — “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Buck” and “Page 1.” He believes the combo that will work over the next two weeks is a mix of name actors along with the perception that a project somehow merits the elusive “quality” characterization.

“My experience at Toronto has been that the buyers are looking for quality and big casts — such as ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ with Emily Blunt,” Braun adds. “It’s got the spirit of an independent film with a big cast.”

Judy Cairo and Mike Simpson, who teamed on “Crazy Heart” through their Informant Media shingle, have similarly high hopes for Victoria Era comedy “Hysteria,” starring Rupert Everett and Maggie Gyllenhaal about the invention of the vibrator. The duo believes the indie business has been on the rebound since Cannes, and that there’s a clear opportunity for their films since the six majors have dialed down activity on producing movies that will appeal to adults.

“We are still making films for people who don’t have braces,” Cairo notes. “We were able to get a great cast because actors are hungry to do good material.”

Richard Guay, who produced “Union Square” with Neda Armian for under $5 million, finds himself equally optimistic that the Mira Sorvino-Tammy Blanchard comedy will sell — despite the plethora of titles available.

“I’m really optimistic, though no one really knows what the buyers’ agenda is,” he added.

Nate Bolotin, president of sales outfit XYZ Films, believes this year’s Toronto is seeing a bounce from last year’s festival.

“Having ‘Black Swan’ and ‘The King’s Speech’ there last year shows why it’s so important — there are lots of indie films disguised as bigger films.”

Bolotin also points to Gareth Evans’ Indonesian actioner “The Raid” as the opening film in the Midnight Madness section. He negotiated the sale of domestic rights to Sony during Cannes.

StudioCanal topper Olivier Courson stresses that his French powerhouse will be active during Toronto as the Hollywood majors focus more on tentpoles and less on mid-budget projects.

“We are not only focused on projects rejected by majors; we are co-developing a lot of stuff working with variety of producers – people are coming to us before majors … . We are also tracking opportunities of acquisition even if we are more and more involved in production side.”

Courson noted that StudioCanal recently acquired “Moonrise Kingdom” for France and “Place beyond Pines” for France and the UK. “For this kind of acquisitions, Toronto’s a good place,” he added.

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