Hot buzz but cool sales at Toronto fest market

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Festivalgoers awoke Sunday to a cold and rainy Toronto, which seemed to mirror the initial mood of buyers looking for available film titles.

In a festival typically front-loaded with acquirable goods, there was no buying frenzy on the order of this year's Sundance fest or Festival de Cannes.

The biggest sale was Helen Hunt's directorial debut, "Then She Found Me." The romantic comedy/drama about a besieged woman whose adoptive mother finds her sported an all-star cast that helped it earn under $2 million from ThinkFilm for U.S. rights and under $1 million from TVA Films for Canadian rights. Negotiations stretched into early Saturday as competition from the Weinstein Co. and Roadside Attractions late Friday morphed into the Canadian co-deal.

In two smaller overseas sales, the Weinstein Co. picked up virtually all worldwide rights to the British child murderer drama "Boy A," and IFC Entertainment purchased North American rights to the Icelandic thriller "Jar City." Myriad Pictures picked up international sales rights to the ex-con tale "All Hat," premiering Tuesday at the festival and set for Canadian distribution by Alliance Films early next year.

Outside the fest but during the thick of it, Miramax plunked down just less than $5 million for U.S. rights to Fernando Meirelles' dramatic plague thriller "Blindness," starring Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore, which is now shooting in Toronto. Another out-of-fest buy was the cross-cultural relationship drama "Never Forever," starring Vera Farmiga. Arts Alliance America (formerly Hart Sharp Video) and Prime Entertainment picked up North American rights and is planning an early 2008 theatrical release.

Buyers fled the school shooting drama "In Bloom" before the end, but it wasn't necessarily a reflection on the film: They were running off to catch the other big title of the night and one of the most anticipated of the fest, Alan Ball's "Nothing Is Private." The shocking drama about a 13-year-old sexually abused Arab-American girl, starring Aaron Eckhart and Toni Collette, provoked wildly mixed, passionate and hesitant reactions along with talk that some scenes could garner it an NC-17 rating. The film attracted interest from a few daring distributors who might wait for today's press screening to make their decisions.

The Charlize Theron-led ensemble drama "Battle in Seattle," set during 1999's World Trade Organization protests, also drew strong and mixed reactions, along with seven-figure offers from three distributors a day after its Saturday premiere.

Buzz seemed sharply divided: In a few cases, one buyer said a title was roundly hated while another buyer said he admired it. The passionate responses made sense. From Columbine-style shootings in "In Bloom" to anti-Arab racism in "Private" to post-Sept. 11 immigration drama in "The Visitor," most films up for grabs were political. "Visitor" has had a slower sales burn than initially expected and still had several parties in play by Sunday evening.

"George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead," which had a Saturday midnight show, is garnering interest from horror mavens After Dark Films, the Weinstein Co. and Magnolia and might sell by today or Tuesday. Another title garnering interest from companies with strong video divisions is Dario Argento's "Mother of Tears." Canadian distributor Equinoxe Films has inked a multipicture, seven-figure deal it will announce late Sunday or early today.

"We've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of films here, but there hasn't been anything we've seen with broad commercial appeal just yet," Lionsgate head Tom Ortenberg said.

January's Sundance took a few days to heat up before its buying frenzy ensued, so there's always the chance of a sales pickup. Films screening Sunday that hope to fit the bill include "Bill," the tale of a teen's mentor, starring Eckhart and Jessica Alba, and the child disappearance drama "The Girl in the Park," with Sigourney Weaver and Kate Bosworth. One indie head called them "the last desperate hope for a big sale here."

On the Hollywood front, some movies quickly distinguished themselves as must-sees, while others had armchair awards pundits wagging their tongues.

Miramax/Paramount Vantage's "No Country for Old Men" continued to build on the positive buzz that began in Cannes, and everyone is talking about Viggo Mortensen's turn in David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," which Focus Features will distribute in the U.S.

While certain established actors are getting raves — Jodie Foster's performance in Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow's "The Brave One" is eliciting an "of course she's good, she's Jodie Foster" reaction — many relative newcomers and up-and-comers are getting praise as well.

In New Line's "Rendition," for example, Omar Metwally outshone the film's Hollywood stars. Emile Hirsch is getting some talk for Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild," which earned raves in Telluride but had Toronto viewers divided, with some calling it "too arty" and others calling it "beautiful." Ang Lee's Venice Film Festival winner "Lust, Caution" also divided viewers, but they agreed on newcomer Tang Wei's stunning performance and Oscar potential for Lee and all below-the-line categories in the Focus film.

Fox Searchlight's "Juno" might be the surprise crowd-pleaser of the festival. Jason Reitman's heartfelt follow-up to "Thank You for Smoking" is the antithesis of the heavy Iraqi war dramas and political thrillers, and while it ostensibly tackles teen pregnancy, audiences were laughing and crying in equal measure. The movie already has people talking about the star-making turn of Ellen Page, who plays a pregnant teen, as well as Diablo Cody's script and the music by Kimya Dawson.

Still waiting in the wings were movies including "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," Brian De Palma's "Redacted" (which won a directing prize at Venice), "In the Valley of Elah" and "Reservation Road."

Etan Vlessing and Gina McIntyre contributed to this report.
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