NYFF the last stop for distributors

Fest could become important for films in need of buyers

NEW YORK -- 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 high-brow 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 -- any number of films in its 46-year history have never been heard from again -- 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, Kino, new distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories and Cinetic Media (with its new, director-heavy management division) scouting films at the fest.

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") just before the fest, and exec Mark Reinhart said they will expand their slate of gay-themed films for sister cable station Here! by seeking titles for Asian audiences to achieve a planned 15-20 releases a year. Oscilloscope's David Fenkel, in New York with its first NYFF title "Wendy and Lucy," is looking for prestige films to launch the company.

While SPC and IFC went on buying sprees in Cannes, neither were 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.

IFC president Jonathan Sehring, who convinced Martin Scorsese to introduce the Italian awards contender "Gomorra" at one of those events, noted that there are fewer films with distributors than usual at this year's NYFF. (He picked up NYFF selection "Che" in Toronto.) "A lot of these filmmakers won't let us see these films elsewhere," he said.

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

With dwindling boxoffice hitting foreign-language films especially hard, their reception at the fest is critical in winning over increasingly cautious buyers. "Our audience can make or break an art film," Pena said. "New Yorkers are more than happy to tell you how much they dislike something."

The NYFF runs through Oct. 12.