Toronto looks to lure the buy-curious

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After all the body slams that the market for finished films has absorbed in the past few years, could a movie like Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" mark the beginning of a comeback?

Looking to defy the odds, a number of high-profile movies are hoping to find receptive buyers at the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday.

Whether they succeed -- and at what price tags -- will depend less on the films themselves than on how much risk the battered acquisitions community is willing to take.

As John Sloss of sales outfit Cinetic Media said, "fear and anxiety are in the air" but also "a sense that distributors still have a need for good films, and the audience eyeballs haven't gone away."

One of the films most likely to snag a deal at Toronto's unofficial market is Aronofsky's "Wrestler," a profile of an aging athlete (Mickey Rourke) that has generated interest off of a short Cannes reel and limited prefest screenings.

While the film might be more of an awards play than a broad commercial entry -- those familiar with it said it was more atmospheric and character-driven than narrative -- executives like Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard note that Rourke's awards-worthy performance should drive interest. During the course of the weekend, "Wrestler" will gamble on a Venice fest screening Friday before a more buyer-heavy bow two days later in Toronto.

Star power should also help draw buyers to other available titles at the festival. Jennifer Aniston's romantic comedy 'Management," a Sidney Kimmel Entertainment film in which she plays an art dealer pursued by an oddball suitor, is expected to clock in with one of the bigger sales.

Zac Efron brings a youthful feel to Richard Linklater's period piece "Me and Orson Welles," though footage of the film got mixed reactions in Cannes. And the presence and promotional support of LeBron James for "More than a Game," about James' high school team, should help elevate the documentary beyond the category's recent, modest expectations.

Gabor Csupo's family fantasy "The Secret of Moonacre" also could use the leverage of commercial potential to attract some big bids. The movie, which bypassed the studio system by getting financing out of Europe, has more of a studio feel than most festival titles.

Buyers looking for films across a range of genres will find at least one high-profile entry in each.



Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq-set "The Hurt Locker" could satisfy buyers shopping for an action movie. Guillermo Arriaga's "The Burning Plain" (which could end up with 2929 sister company Magnolia if bids don't come in high enough) and Paul Schrader's "Adam Resurrected" are among the notable entries in the auteur drama category. Those hunting for a class saga might gravitate to the Peter O'Toole starrer "Dean Spanley," and those seeking a coming-of-age ensemble piece might look to the Alec Baldwin-Cynthia Nixon toplined 1970s film "Lymelife."

Some of the more commercial docus will be represented by such entries as Endgame Entertainment's "Every Little Step," about "A Chorus Line"; the fashionista biopic "Valentino: The Last Emperor"; the kung-fu tale "The Real Shaolin"; and the '70s sex-club profile "American Swing."

It's been a tumultuous year on the buyer side since the last Toronto.

Four companies have either shut down or overhauled their mandates (Warner Independent, Picturehouse, Paramount Vantage and ThinkFilm), while at least two have started or ramped up their U.S. specialty operations (Summit and Senator). Other outfits, like Bob Berney's potential new venture, dangle as tempting question marks.

Despite Toronto's growing reputation as a festival that serves to showcase the biggest fall movies -- "Burn After Reading," "Happy-Go-Lucky," "The Secret Life of Bees" and "The Duchess" will play there -- the festival also can introduce a small title to acquisition execs, who then turn it into an indie hit.

Last year, the relatively new Overture Films found a small movie it liked in "The Visitor" and snapped it up; after a strategic rollout, the film has earned nearly $10 million.

Still, Bernard, who along with IFC has been a big player at the past few festivals, said that buyers will still be very cautious because "they finally did the math on these films, and people see how hard it is to make a profit." He also points out that, "A lot of companies have full lineups for next year, so they're not desperate for product."

Executives say that managing expectations -- for both buyers and distributors -- remains essential.

"The key is avoiding the bidding wars and understanding there's only one or two correct buyers for every film," said Mark Urman, who soon will segue from ThinkFilm to Senator. "And even then it's a toss of a coin."

That kind of restrained hope is prevalent among buyers and sellers this year. As William Morris Independent's Cassian Elwes said: "We're cautiously optimistic" about the sales market. "It couldn't get any worse."

Borys Kit in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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