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Toronto: Five Lessons From the 2013 Festival

Can A Song Save Your Life - H 2013
"Can a Song Save Your Life?"

UPDATED: While sales boomed and an irate blogger called 911 to complain about cell phone usage during a screening, the event boasted one of its strongest lineups in years.

Temperatures may have been cooler than usual, but the 2013 edition of the Toronto Film Festival was red-hot when it came to dealmaking and headlines. And that's without accounting for the hundreds of thousands of dollars the Hollywood studios and leading indie distributors spent to launch their awards contenders movies in Toronto, known as the people's festival because of its proletariat audiences.

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Here's a rundown of the five biggest lessons coming out of this year's fest:

1. The indie business is alive and well.

More money was plunked down at Toronto than at any other recent festival, with many deals yet to be announced. Focus Features paid $8 million for worldwide rights to Jason Bateman's feature directorial debut, the comedy Bad Words, while The Weinstein Co. ponied up $7 million for U.S. rights to John Carney's Can a Song Save Your Life? starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, a follow-up to his 2006 film Once.

There were a slew of deals in the $2 million to $3 million range, an overall uptick. They include CBS Films' $2.5 million deal for Daniel Radcliffe's modern-day romance The F-Word and A24 Films' $2 million deal for the Tom Hardy drama Locke.

Flush from recent successes like The Butler, Harvey Weinstein's team made two other major Toronto acquisitions, paying $3 million to $4 million in a multiterritory deal for the relationship drama The Disappearance for Eleanor Rigby; Her and Him, starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy; and $2 million for U.S. rights to The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.

Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate also had a major presence, paying several million dollars for the Jennifer Aniston black comedy Life of Crime, based on the novel The Switch by the late Elmore Leonard. Lionsgate and Roadside are nearing a deal for David Gordon Green's Joe, starring Nicolas Cage.

Among the agencies, CAA was the big winner, sealing what's expected to be 10 Toronto deals.

2. If you want to watch a movie in peace, don't go to a press and industry screening.

Alex Billington, a movie blogger writing for FirstShowing.net, made news by calling 911 to complain that people were using their smart phones to text, e-mail and call during a midnight screening of the horror thriller The Sacrament. His alleged concern -- piracy.

Billington called emergency dispatchers after getting nowhere with theater managers, who suspend the usual rules during Toronto. Since press and industry screenings are just that, theaters allow cell phone usage during movies since buyers need to be able to discuss their reactions with colleagues (as well as get up and leave if they choose).

3. It's a great place to lay your Oscar cards on the table.

The advantage of launching an awards hopeful at Toronto is that you learn quickly whether you are in -- or out.

Judging by this year's Toronto buzz o' meter, Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave scored big as it heads into awards season. Besides winning over critics and Oscar handicappers, audiences voted to hand it TIFF's People's Choice Award. Warner Bros.' space epic Gravity continued to gather momentum, following its successful premiere in Venice.

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And Matthew McConaughey's striking transformation in Focus' Dallas Buyers Club, where he plays a man suffering from AIDS who is fighting for his life, was near the top of everyone's list of impressive performances on display. Searchlight also earned accolades from crowds with its period piece Belle -- though at the moment, the distributor plans to bank that one for next awards season since it isn't scheduled to be released until May.

On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Condon's WikiLeaks feature The Fifth Estate -- the festival's opening-night film -- bowed to a mixed reception. DreamWorks quickly spread the word that it's positioning the movie as more of a commercial play than an awards contender.

4. Hollywood's new financiers come of age.

Move over, Megan Ellison.

Christopher Woodrow's Worldview Entertainment had no fewer than six films premiering in Toronto, including Joe; The Sacrament; The Devil's Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth; and Eli Roth's The Green Inferno, which sold to Open Road Films. CAA represents Worldview.

Guy East and Nigel Sinclair's Exclusive Media also shone in Toronto, particularly with Can a Song Save Your Life? The company co-financed and co-produced Ron Howard's Formula One drama Rush, which made its North American debut at the festival, and was one of the producers of the Kennedy assassination study Parkland.

5. The Brits are coming.

After being almost a no-show at the Cannes Film Festival and having a fairly quiet Venice Film Festival, the British film industry was in fine form at Toronto between Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, Kevin Macdonald's How I Live Now and Richard Ayoade's The Double. There was also The Love Punch, starring Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson, and the film adaptation of the hit play Sunshine on Leith, set against the music of Scottish band The Proclaimers.

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All told, 25 films at Toronto had U.K. backing, according to the British Film Institute, including from BBC Films and Channel 4's Film Four. The invasion was evident on the red carpet, which attracted such talent as Benedict Cumberbatch (Fifth Estate, August: Osage County) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of 12 Years a Slave and Toronto entry Half of a Yellow Sun.