Toronto biz could be brisk

Fest launches Thursday with bright outlook

The 36th Toronto Film Festival will launch Thursday with a brighter outlook than at the prior three iterations.

Riding a wave of strong sales that began earlier this year, folks headed to Toronto are notably more upbeat — a sharp turnaround from 2008 and 2009.

A flurry of developments tied to Toronto will be unveiled this week, on the heels of the Weinstein Co.’s Tuesday announcement that it is creating a new label to bring content to digital and traditional platforms simultaneously, hiring former Magnolia execs Tom Quinn and Jason Janego to head the initiative. The duo will attend Toronto with an eye toward acquiring films for the fledging label. Company expects to debut its first title under the new label in the first half of 2012.

“People are realizing that Toronto is a great place to start selling new films,” said FilmNation Entertainment topper Glen Basner. “Equity is coming back after being on (the) sidelines, and that’s a double-edged sword, as while it allows more movies to get made, it doesn’t necessarily mean more good movies. For now, the financial crisis made buyers much more conservative, but the cycle will change.”

As the major studios have dramatically cut back on their production slates, distribution pipelines have opened to indies proffering low- to midrange-budgeted films. Sundance, Berlin and Cannes already saw better-than-expected markets, and after the stunning successes of “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech,” the summer B.O. tallies for Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” have bolstered the general sense that this is a good time to be an indie.

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.”

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.

Alex Walton, prexy of international sales for Exclusive Media, agreed that there’s a real appetite for product at Toronto this year. “Buyers are hoping there will be a wealth of new material,” Walton said. “The buoyant mood from Cannes should continue.”

The key reasons for optimism:

• As studios focus more of their resources on tentpoles, more viable buyers have emerged for independent midlevel-budget projects.

Besides the traditional names (TWC, Fox Searchlight, Focus, Sony Classics, Summit and Lionsgate), several others are expected to be in the mix, including FilmDistrict, CBS Films, Open Road, Relativity and Millenium.

“There’s going to be a lot of competition for finished films, with five, six or even eight buyers,” said UTA’s Richard Klubeck. “The market’s robust. I don’t think either side has the upper hand, though.”

• Equity’s coming back.

“The market and public are embracing these films, and banks are getting more comfortable providing gap (financing) again,” said Rena Ronson, co-head of UTA Independent Film Group. “We’re seeing more high-net-worth individuals coming onto the scene investing wisely as well.”

• Overseas entities such as Studiocanal are stepping up with commercial projects, such as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

“It has real potential in the U.S.,” said Studiocanal topper Olivier Courson, “and it’s clearly a European film.”

• Digital coin is on the upswing.

“Though they haven’t offset the decline in DVD sales, digital revenues are rising,” said Hal Sadoff, ICM’s head of international and independent film. “Over the past two years, VOD and streaming services such as Netflix are generating revenue and subscribers at a much faster pace than anyone expected.”

CAA’s Micah Green said digital is a better arena for independent distributors to compete with the major studios vs. fighting with them for retail shelf space. “VOD and digital are the great equalizers in indies,” Green said.

• Indies are able to access Hollywood’s talent pool much more readily.

“Agencies have become very good at creating smart deals and getting their clients to share in the backend revenues, which enable independent films to get made,” said Basner.

• Investors have a plan.

“We want to really be involved in production,” Courson said, adding that there’s a real audience for character pieces.

Courson cited “True Grit” and “Black Swan” as examples of international hits that found auds who, he posits, “are really bored with bigger, CGI blockbusters.”

Sadoff noted that the studios’ focus on tentpoles doesn’t mean an emphasis on star vehicles.

“You’re seeing a significant drop in studio films,” Sadoff said. “And those films are more of an event rather than being focused on actors.”