'Duchess' talks stir Toronto Film Festival

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Toronto fest reviews

TORONTO -- As a lackluster Toronto sales scene limps to a close, it took a film that hasn't even begun shooting to get one major player to open wide its checkbook.

Paramount Vantage is in final negotiations to prebuy North American, Latin American and Australian rights to "The Duchess," starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, for about $7 million. The movie, set in the world of the 19th century British aristocracy, begins production this month in London.

As for the Toronto titles still in search of buyers, a number of smaller films are inching toward deals.

Dario Argento's horrorfest "Mother of Tears," starring daughter Asia Argento, appears to be finding a home. Producer Myriad Pictures apparently is in negotiations for a U.S. distribution pact with the Weinstein Co. for home video release.

Stuart Townsend's World Trade Organization protest drama "Battle in Seattle," featuring an ensemble led by the director's girlfriend, Charlize Theron, also is closing in on a deal.

In addition, Ira Sachs' 1940s-set marital drama "Married Life," from Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, is nearing a U.S. distribution deal to complement Tuesday's Canadian pickup by Equinoxe Films.

As for "In Bloom," the drama about a school shooting that was budgeted at about $12 million, its producer 2929 Entertainment found some tentative interest from Lionsgate. In the end, though, 2929 chose to distribute "Bloom" through its own Magnolia Pictures -- it will be one of the distributor's two biggest-budget releases to date.

The fest, heavy this year with political films, saw a mass exodus of buyers beginning Tuesday, the anniversary of Sept. 11. The events of Sept. 11 brought the Toronto fest to a halt six years ago, but they weren't even mentioned this week. Instead, it was the lackluster sales climate that most concerned the attendees.

"A lot of people wasted a lot of money coming up here," said one acquisitions executive who hadn't acquired any Toronto features. "The available films were very disappointing. It was the weakest festival in my long memory. The specialty division films (which arrived with distribution in place) were great -- 'Into the Wild,' 'Juno,' 'Atonement,' 'Michael Clayton,' 'No Country for Old Men,' 'Run, Fat Boy, Run' -- but none was available."

A Vantage spokesperson said there was no "Duchess" deal in place by Wednesday night, but a source involved in the deal a day earlier said that an agreement had been reached with the filmmakers.

In the Pathe Prods.- and BBC Films-financed feature, Knightley plays 18th century-era Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Fiennes plays the Duke of Devonshire, her partner in an unhappy marriage that led to a menage a trois.

Saul Dibb's film is based on Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, adapted for the screen by Jeffery Hatcher. The Magnolia Mae Prods. and Qwerty Films production is produced by Qwerty's Michael Kuhn and Magnolia Mae's Gabrielle Tana.

Vadim Perelman's "Bloom," starring Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood and Eva Amurri, premiered Saturday night to mixed reaction and walkouts that had little or nothing to do with the film; buyers simply were heading off to another of the fest's most anticipated films, Alan Ball's "Nothing Is Private," which drew extreme reactions and ultimately a $1.25 million deal Tuesday with Warner Independent Pictures and Red Envelope Entertainment.

But neither film triggered heated bidding wars, mirroring the generally slow Toronto sales.

In "Bloom," Perelman's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "House of Sand and Fog," a Columbine-style shooting survivor (Thurman) flashes back to the event on its 15th anniversary. Wood appears as a younger version of Thurman in the flashback sequences.

While Magnolia will release the film domestically, "Bloom" has been acquired by more than a dozen other territories, including Benelux (MS Trading/Paradiso), Canada (TVA Films), Eastern Europe (MGN/Paradise), Israel (United King), France (Metropolitan), Greece (Odeon), Indonesia (PT Amero), Italy (Media Film), Japan (Desperado), Korea (Pan Cinema), the Middle East (ECS), Portugal (Lusomundo), Spain (Manga), Thailand (Jbic), and Turkey (Aqua Group). 2929 International is handling international sales.

Emil Stern's "Bloom" script was adapted from Laura Kasischke's novel "The Life Before Her Eyes." The film was produced by Perelman, Aimee Peyronnet and Anthony Katagas; executive produced by 2929's Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban and Marc Butan; and co-produced by Chase Bailey, Couper Samuelson, Mike Upton and Ian McGloin. Cinetic Media and CAA repped the filmmakers in the deal.

Other fest titles in play included Peter Askin's all-star blacklist documentary "Trumbo" and David Ross' suburban teen brothel drama "The Babysitters."

Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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