Tense times in Toronto

Uncertain buyers step carefully into fest's fray

The Toronto International Film Festival is likely to be a highly charged poker game, with plenty of wild cards in play.

A possible actors strike next summer could dry up indie slates. Distributors still are absorbing films that they acquired during January's unexpected buyer frenzy at the Sundance Film Festival. New distributors with deep pockets are entering the market. And few, if any, Oscar contenders have emerged so far, adding to the pressure for the fall awards hopefuls to deliver the goods.

All these factors could impact the annual north-of-the-border festival.

"The mood is panic," TIFF director Noah Cowan said Wednesday on the eve of the festival. "There are a lot of important movies that people are eager to see."

He estimated that this year's lineup contains about 40 movies with Oscar potential, plus 10 likely candidates for U.S. acquisition and another 10 prestige titles likely to find international buyers.

Although Cowan and TIFF Sales and Industry Office head Giulia Filippelli take pains to insist that Toronto isn't a market, the fest is making itself more buyer-friendly. Last year's debut of 15 extra buyers-only screenings has been replaced with an extra 31 "priority press screenings." Only buyers and a select number of media members with a soon-to-be-coveted "P" on their badges are allowed in these showings until 15 minutes before they start, when the gates are opened for all press and industry who can be accommodated.

The extra screenings, which average four a day, would appear to be a compromise with critics who felt the extra buyers-only screenings were too insular and exclusionary, while providing a top-tier alternative for line-dreading buyers jumping from theater to theater for select titles.

Films on the list include Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor," Paolo Barzman's "Emotional Arithmetic" and Hans Weingartner's "Reclaim Your Brain," plus several others that already have domestic distribution. Filippelli said that these are additional screenings beyond the usual number, so no one is being shut out. Her other initiatives include a detailed list of all available rights by territory.

Many buyers are downplaying the list of available titles at Toronto, but some of the same buyers also bemoan the lack of available good titles in advance of this year's Sundance before big checks began flying for foreign films with no stars. "A lot of films that were overpriced at Sundance haven't been released, so a lot of people haven't drunk the Kool-Aid," Red Envelope Entertainment head Bahman Naraghi said.

Buyers also are aware this year that even the hottest Toronto titles don't often translate into boxoffice success. For every "Thank You for Smoking" that hits big, there's a huge bidding war for such titles as "El Cantante" or "Trust the Man" that end up not taking off.

Bidding wars are spurred by competition, so all eyes are on first-time Toronto visitor Overture Films and Summit Entertainment, which is making its fest debut as a distributor.

"We're looking for good, solid, mainstream movies that are opportunistically priced," Summit CEO Rob Friedman said. The company plans to acquire four finished films or scripts a year with about eight in-house productions.

With an eye for the mainstream, Summit and Overture might be more likely than other outfits to circle such titles as George A. Romero's "Diary of the Dead" or Dario Argento's "Mother of Tears."

"We're looking for high-profile, studio-style movies for the independent marketplace, smaller budget films with breakout potential," Overture COO Danny Rosett said. "It doesn't take a huge amount of money as long as you have a solid cast and pedigree."

Summit recently picked up last year's $15 million TIFF entry "Penelope," which originally was co-purchased by the Weinstein Co. and IFC Films but returned to sender just before its release.

This year, the titles on everyone's lips are predictably the ones with star power both behind and in front of the camera. All buyers seem to want to see "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball's directorial debut "Nothing Is Private," starring Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette and Maria Bello, which is based on the Gulf War memoir "Towelhead." Vadim Perelman's "In Bloom," starring Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood, also is generating interest, as are "Bill," starring Eckhart and Jessica Alba, and "Battle in Seattle," featuring an all-star ensemble led by Charlize Theron.

Underdogs that people are buzzing about include Weingartner's German-language drama "Brain," Santosh Sivan's culture-clash drama "Before the Rains," Nick Broomfield's Iraq War drama "Battle for Haditha" and McCarthy's "Visitor." The opening-night film, Jeremy Podeswa's Holocaust drama "Fugitive Pieces," has been screening for U.S. buyers since midsummer.

In the wake of such successful documentaries as "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Sicko," the docu market is heating up — even though most never make it into the $20 million territory that those two did. Still, some of the hotter titles are Werner Herzog's adventure "Encounters at the End of the World"; "Trumbo," a star-filled portrait of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo; Iraq veteran docu "Body of War" (co-directed by talk-show host Phil Donahue, with music by Eddie Vedder); Parvez Sharma's gay Muslim study "A Jihad for Love"; and Scott Hicks' Philip Glass biopic "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts."

The economy also could influence sales at the fest. "The dollar is cheap right now," said Myriad Pictures president Kirk D'Amico, who along with companies like IM Global is looking to do some presales this week. "People can buy more for their money from U.S. sellers."

More than one distributor said that this year's lineup has more of an emphasis on potential Oscar showcases than potential acquisitions. Certainly there are big dog-and-pony shows promised for domestic titles: the Weinstein Co. has 11 films; Sony Pictures Classics has nine; IFC has seven; and Picturehouse, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features have four apiece, just to name a few.

With 275 films on the slate, there always are surprises. Last year, a distributor many mistakenly thought was dead, Newmarket Films, asserted itself with the $1 million purchase of the faux assassination docu "Death of a President." Other companies that might decide to flex their distribution muscle include Roadside Attractions (with a cash infusion from new minority stake owner Lionsgate); its former partner in IDP, Samuel Goldwyn Films; Millennium/Nu Image; and First Independent.

At the moment, though, distributors are outwardly expressing more caution than lust for new acquisitions. Whether they're "playing their cards close to the vest," as ThinkFilm U.S. theatrical head Mark Urman observed, or legitimately expressing concerns is difficult to tell. But most privately agree on one thing: With the deadline that could trigger a potential actors strike approaching, distributors are starting to feel added pressure to stock up on films. And if they don't find what they're looking for in Toronto, then, as one agent predicted, "the next Sundance will be insane."

Etan Vlessing contributed to this report.
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