NYFF the last stop for distribs

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Despite all its prestige fare, the New York Film Festival is considered about as far from a film market as you can get. But as the art house arena is faltering and changing, the fest is assuming a more crucial role on the commercial side of indie distribution.

Raising its film profiles among specialty audiences and awards voters, the NYFF is becoming a more important proving ground for several titles without distributors, as well as companies with newly ramped-up slates.

"I'd like to think we've been the final argument for distributors putting down cash for a film," NYFF selection committee chairman Richard Pena said. While the committee couldn't be accused of choosing its 28 titles based on commercial value, Pena said executives will sometimes ask his opinion on a film's potential "legs" beyond the fest. (Only one film this year, Clint Eastwood's Centerpiece selection "Changeling" from Universal, has a major distributor.)

Pena has seen reps from Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, IFC Films and Kino scouting films.

Like investors swooping up shares in a falling stock market, all are cautiously stepping in where most surviving specialty divisions and minimajors are fearing to tread, with several pressing ahead with mandates to fill their 2009 slates. Regent Releasing acquired two NYFF entries ("Serbis" and "Tokyo Sonata") before the fest.

While SPC and IFC went on buying sprees in Cannes, neither was busy snapping up titles in Toronto last month, but they still have hefty slates to fill: SPC with 18-22 releases, IFC with 25 theatrical/VOD titles and more for its straight-to-VOD program.

The two distributors already dominate the fest: IFC with five films, SPC with three. Both have potential foreign-language film Oscar nominees that will be hyped to Academy voters at Peggy Siegal-hosted dinner parties timed with this year's relocated Ziegfeld Theatre premieres.

Three titles that have garnered interest are Agnes Jaoui's French drama "Let It Rain," Gerardo Naranjo's Mexican adventure "I'm Gonna Explode" and the Chilean/ Brazilian drama "Tony Manero."

With dwindling boxoffice hitting foreign-language films hard, their reception at the fest is critical in winning over cautious buyers. "Our audience can make or break an art film," Pena said.

The NYFF runs through Oct. 12. (partialdiff)
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