Suddenly, Searchlight's back in awards biz

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Fox Searchlight's acquisition of the Toronto buzz film "The Wrestler" is a game-changer for the fall's awards-season landscape.

Having picked up the U.S. rights to Darren Aronofsky's character drama about the life of an aging wrestler (Mickey Rourke) for an estimated $3.5 million-$4 million, the specialty distributor will be handling an instant contender in a number of key awards categories.

And that's not the only title that puts Searchlight in the awards spotlight. The distributor also picked up the fest's other breakout film, Danny Boyle's gritty but moving "Slumdog Millionaire," a coming-of-age tale set in India that involves a competition on the country's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

Searchlight acquired an interest in "Slumdog" from Warner Bros. just two weeks ago. And Sunday night in Toronto, at the exact same time as "Wrestler" unspooled, so did "Slumdog," which screened to enthusiastic applause, signaling its potential to become a fall crossover hit, just as Searchlight's "Juno" did last year after Toronto.

Last month, Searchlight was looking as if it might be a bit player as fall releases and awards campaigns kick into gear. But "Wrestler" and "Slumdog," as well as another Toronto crowd-pleaser, "The Secret Life of Bees," ensure that Searchlight should become a major player in the fall boxoffice race and the awards competition.

While lauding Searchlight's two bold moves, several execs in Toronto raised questions about the speed with which it can ramp up both release and awards campaigns. Searchlight has a lighter schedule this year in general, but putting together three time-intensive marketing and awards drives in one season would tax the boutique staff of any specialty unit.

On the other hand, Searchlight has experience juggling multiple winners — in 2006, for example, it shepherded "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Last King of Scotland" to major Oscar wins.

Searchlight captured "Wrestler" after the specialty division spent a long night negotiating and wooing producers, financiers Media Rights Capital and Wild Bunch, and producer-director Aronofsky.

While Lionsgate and Overture were among the buyers in the mix, the filmmakers ultimately decided that Searchlight's strong commercial track record made it the best choice. The Fox unit now plans a December release that will seek to capitalize on the momentum of both Toronto and Venice, where "Wrestler" won the Golden Lion.

Meanwhile, Searchlight is planning a very limited start for its "Slumdog" release when it bows in November — more modest than its "Juno" rollout in December — with the option of expanding up to 1,000 screens quickly if the film immediately catches on.

The deal for the film is unusual: Searchlight did not buy out Warners position in the movie but instead will split the financial upside 50-50; Searchlight will release the film and will make all strategic decisions.

In other acquisition news, IFC made a small pickup of Telluride title "Everlasting Love" late Monday. Buyers were also circling "Management," which screened Sunday, and were prepping for Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," which unspooled Monday.

Gregg Goldstein in New York and Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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