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Toronto: Stars Align to Drive Big Indie Successes

Hollywood’s major studios are making fewer movies and focusing more and more on big-ticket tentpole franchises, giving the independent sector the clear-cut opportunity to expand.

With the 38th Toronto Film Festival opening today, stars are more and more the key currency in that expansion — with financiers and producers gambling that buyers will be ready, willing and able to close deals.

Toronto often serves as launching pad for awards season contenders, with buzz already growing for “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Fifth Estate,” “August: Osage County” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” But there are plenty of star-driven projects without distribution — a sign of confidence by sellers that there’s ample buyer interest in finished films.

Take, for example, Paul Haggis’ drama “Third Person,” starring Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, James Franco and Olivia Wilde. The story jumps from Paris to Rome to New York as it traces the hidden connections between three very different men.

“There is so much product so something like ‘Third Person’ really helps you stand above the crowd, which is really difficult in this environment,” notes Ben Weiss of Paradigm, which is co-repping domestic rights with CAA.

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Lionsgate’s Patrick Wachsberger puts it bluntly: “Stars give you an anchor. Without stars it’s very difficult to get awareness on specialty movies.”

One of the hotter titles at TIFF is Exclusive Media’s “Can a Song Save Your Life,” a music industry drama starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener in a music industry drama with recording artists Mos Def, CeeLo Green and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine.

Alex Walton, Exclusive Media’s president of international sales and distribution, noted that the film is Irish director John Carney’s return to the music arena after 2006’s “Once.”

“Because of the director and script, we were able to get a very strong cast and soundtrack album,” he added.

It’s been a good summer for indies with recognizable stars — “Mud,” “The Way Way Back” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” have generated solid domestic B.O. with about $20 million each.

“More independently financed movies are doing well than in years past,” says WME Global topper Graham Taylor, who sold “Pines” at last year’s TIFF for $3.5 million. There are several new buyers, with A24, Radius and Exclusive Releasing in addition to the usual lineup of TWC, Fox Searchlight, Focus, Sony Pictures Classics, CBS Films, Lionsgate and sister company Roadside Attractions, IFC, Relativity and Millennium.

Worldview Entertainment is selling several high-profile titles — Ti West’s “The Sacrament,” which received strong Venice reviews; Atom Egoyan’s “Devil’s Knot,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth; Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno”; and “Joe,” starring Nicolas Cage.

“We were very pleased about Ti getting into Venice and Toronto with what’s really his first mainstream film,” Worldview topper Christopher Woodrow notes.

Myles Nestel, who launched sales-financing banner the Solution last year, notes that Joel Edgerton’s star power and script were key in getting “Felony” financed and into TIFF.

“Once you go past $2 million or $3 million, the casting really becomes a key dynamic,” Nestel added.

Christine Vachon of Killer Films has Daniel Radcliffe starrer “Kill Your Darlings,” which Sony Classics is distributing; and Errol Flynn biopic “The Last of Robin Hood,” starring Kevin Kline in the story of Flynn’s final years and the actor’s romance with a starlet portrayed by Dakota Fanning. Cinetic is selling U.S. rights.

“The challenge is to tell an ambitious story on a limited budget,” she said. “We shot ‘Robin Hood’ in under 30 days.”

Other key titles for sale at TIFF include Jimi Hendrix biopic “All Is By My Side,” starring Andre Benjamin; “Cymbeline,” starring Ethan Hawke and still in production; Ron Howard’s doc “Made in America,” covering Jay-Z organizing the “Budweiser Made in America” music festival; Mike Myers’ doc “Supermensch The Legend of Shep Gordon” and Matt Weiner’s “You Are Here,” starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifiankis and Amy Poehler.

“I don’t recall a year where there were so many commercial star-driven films at Toronto,” said CAA’s Micah Green. “You’re seeing the continuing phenomenon of commercial movies being financed by non-studio financiers.”

Green, co-head of CAA’s Film Finance and Sales Group, called Ron Howard’s “Rush,” premiering at TIFF and financed by Cross Creek and Exclusive Media, a great illustration of a Toronto commercial title that’s financed independently — mid-budget, wide release, star director and star cast, completely funded by independents.

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