Producers tread tricky IFF waters

Medium-budgeted projects are a challenging sell

TORONTO -- Indie producer Krysanne Katsoolis is skating on thin ice, and knows it.

The New York-based Cactus Three producer is at the Toronto International Film Festival, shopping a Neil LaBute drama "Autobahn" at the two-day International Financing Forum (IFF). The project's $6 million budget is in a no-man's land between the $2 million to $3 million budget required of indie projects during the current global credit crunch, and a $10 million to $15 million budget that can attach a big-name director or actor to entice buyers.

"I wanted to do it as low as possible. But when you attach name talent, it's hard to do it for much less," Katsoolis said.

She's not alone. As indie film absorbs the financial squeeze, producers at IFF in search of co-production or co-venture financing feel compelled to avoid a danger zone between low and higher-level budgets to entice buyers.

"It's tough. I'm dealing with a known entity (LaBute). It's incredibly tough to get these projects going," Katsoolis said.

And it's getting tougher, with the Toronto festival this week unspooling around 100 indie films with A-list talent that have yet to secure U.S. distribution.

Given that glut, getting your next project financed in Toronto takes some ingenuity.

Damon D'Oliveira, a partner in Toronto-based indie producer Conquering Lion Pictures, is also walking a tightrope at IFF with "Enter the Cipher," a hip-hop drama by director Clement Virgo budgeted at $8 million.

"Buyers are lingering this year," he says of the Toronto film market. "It's definitely a buyer's market."

But films are getting financed, and D'Oliviera has heat in Toronto after optioning the film rights to Lawrence Hill's best-selling novel "The Book of Negroes," to be adapted an international co-production, with Virgo directing.

The trick, he explains, is securing soft money from co-production partners -- federal or regional subsidies or tax breaks -- that can be added to public financing already available to D'Oliviera from Canadian sources.

"If you're making larger budget films, they're all co-productions and co-ventures. That's the new universe we're in," he said.

Kate Ogborn, a producer with London-based the Bureau, is at IFF this year to shop the $4.5 million U.K. drama "Kingsland," a first feature from veteran screenwriter Tony Grisoni ("Red Riding Trilogy," "In This World").

She's typical of indie producers unwilling to compromise on quality to trim budgets: "We have cinematic ambition."

Judy Holm, co-president of Toronto-based indie producer Markham Street Films, is more in the ball park with the $15 million comedy "The Return of the Fabulous 7."

With Brian Drader's script in hand, Holm is at IFF seeking co-production or co-venture partners for the campy film about seven former models in their fifties re-uniting to save the fashion designer who originally made them from scandal and ruin.

"Everything is changing. Most people are feeling there's no middle-ground in budgets these days. But there's always a middle-ground that works," Holm argued, with predictable producer optimism in hard times.

The IFF gathering, sponsored by the Ontario Media Development Corp., wraps Monday, while the Toronto International Film Festival goes through September 19.