Star-studded films vie for attention in Toronto

Will buyers respond to the high-profile projects?

More Toronto coverage

TORONTO -- Get ready for a high-stakes, star-packed game of musical chairs as the 35th Toronto International Film Festival gets under way Thursday.

During the next 10 days, several dozen movies -- many boasting marquee names in unexpected roles -- will be unveiled with hopes that after all the attendant music dies down, they'll find themselves in the arms of an enthusiastic domestic distributor and not be left abandoned on the sidelines.

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart will wrestle with the death of a child in "Rabbit Hole," directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Helmed by Robert Redford, "The Conspirator" will offer James McAvoy as a reluctant attorney defending a woman (Robin Wright) accused of involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black will make his directorial debut with "What's Wrong With Virginia," in which Jennifer Connelly stars as a mentally ill mother.

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor will share the screen as father and son in Mike Mills' "Beginners" -- the surprise being that Plummer's character, rather late in life, is coming out of the closet. In a change of pace, Will Ferrell will star in Dan Rush's "Everything Must Go," playing a man who resorts to staging a yard sale as his life falls apart around him. And Mickey Rourke, whose "The Wrestler" was the talk of the 2008 fest, will slip into the skin of another damaged soul, this time a down-on-his-luck trumpeter in Mitch Glazer's "Passion Play."

And that's only a sampling of the high-profile projects that will be competing for attention. But will buyers respond in kind?

Last year, with just a few exceptions -- like the Weinstein Co.'s decision to snap up "A Single Man" just hours after its Toronto debut -- no buying frenzy ever really developed. And though prospects this year appear more upbeat, there are enough question marks hovering over a number of distribution companies for even the most eager sellers to strike a cautious note.

"There are a lot of interesting movies with movie stars, but unless someone is completely blown away by something, people will sort of let it all play out a little bit and wait," said one agent in the midst of the expected fray. "The good news is there are still a number of buyers. The question is, what kind of appetite will they have, how much will they pay, and will they offer real theatrical releases backed with P&A? But then you only really need a couple of buyers to like a film and you have a competition going."

Another distributor said, "So many of the movies have much higher budgets -- that's always a problem for sellers looking to get a price that they need."

The more established players in the field are arriving at the festival with dance cards that already are fairly full. Fox Searchlight, for example, will be showing off a fall lineup that includes Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," Danny Boyle's survival story "127 Hours" and the Hilary Swank starrer "Conviction," directed by Tony Goldwyn. Focus will be showing off the psycho-ward comedy "It's Kind of a Funny Story," starring Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. And Sony Pictures Classics will be tub-thumbing for several titles first seen at Cannes (Mike Leigh's "Another Year," Stephen Frears' "Tamara Drewe" and Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job") while introducing new titles like the distaff labor tale "Made in Dagenham," directed by Nigel Cole.

Buyers expect Focus and Searchlight to be very selective about any purchases. SPC, though, is likely to be a much more active buyer, along with IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures, all of which left Cannes with multiple films.

"We're bringing some great films," SPC co-head Michael Barker said, "but there's always room for one more."

And so, on the eve of the fest, SPC took U.S. rights to one prominent title off the table by helping itself to "Barney's Version," Richard J. Lewis' adaptation of the Mordecai Richler novel, produced by Robert Lantos.

"We're certainly going in with the notion in mind of being active," IFC senior vp Arianna Bocco said. "The lineup, on paper, looks promising."

In a tweet before heading to Toronto, Magnolia acquisitions exec Tom Quinn said: "Looking forward to TIFF. We'll be in a buying mood."

The Weinstein Co., which concluded a restructuring agreement with its lenders during the summer, will be looking to build momentum around a quartet of films already set for release, including Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech," which drew raves at Telluride for Colin Firth's performance as King George VI.

David Glasser, the company's president of international distribution, said, "My hope is that we can find some ideal pictures either for the remainder of 2010 or our 2011 slate."

Daniel Battsek, the former Miramax head, will be attending the fest in his new role as president of National Geographic Films, which rolled out the Afghanistan-set documentary "Restrepo" in June. With NGF planning to distribute four to six films per year, Battsek said, "We don't have a quota or a pipeline that has to be filled, but if we see films that fit our brand, we are very keen to maximize the distribution part of our company."

Newmarket Films picked up Jon Amiel's "Creation" after last year's Toronto fest wrapped, and having become part of the Exclusive Media Group late last year, it is expected to ramp up its activities.

Sellers are watching to see whether Relativity Media, which acquired several assets from Overture in July and tapped Peter Adee as president of marketing and distribution, will emerge as a serious buyer at this year's fest.

And they're also waiting for Graham King's GK Films to formally announce that Bob Berney, who resigned from Apparition just before Cannes, is coming aboard to beef up GK's distribution business.

Summit heads Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger, along with a full acquisition team, will be hitting the town as well, with a particular eye for titles that lend themselves to wide release.

They're likely to be looking closely at the fest's Midnight Madness lineup, which includes a number of movies that could prove commercially viable.

"From a marketing perspective, a lot of the most interesting stuff is coming out of Midnight Madness, in all genres -- not just limited to the horror genre," said Steven Bersch, president of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.

This year's lineup, none of which has a distributor, includes "Bunraku," Guy Moshe's mashup of Western-samurai-noir genres starring Josh Hartnett and Woody Harrelson; the ghost story "Insidious," from "Saw" director James Wan; and "John Carpenter's The Ward," the director's first movie in nine years. Crime thrillers and Asian actioners round out the bill.

At the moment, genre is what's selling -- both to distribs and to audiences. The witching-hour sidebar skews on the passionate fanboy side, and that's also a crowd that is quick to let filmmakers know whether they like or loathe a film.

"When the ultimate distribution of a film depends on your ability to capture the imagination of fanboys, the best idea is to present it to that audience," one veteran sales exec said. "You're guaranteed an informed reaction."

Still, with hundreds of titles on tap, it's nearly impossible to generalize about this year's offerings.

Actors including David Schwimmer with the seriously dramatic "Trust" and Casey Affleck with the offbeat doc "I'm Still Here" will test their skills behind the camera.

Kelly Reichardt already has earned appreciative notices in Venice for "Meek's Cutoff," set on the Oregon Trail during the 1840s; Abe Sylvia is conducting a femme-centric road trip in "Dirty Girl," starring Juno Temple; Keanu Reeves stars in Malcolm Venville's comedy "Henry's Crime"; Guillaume Canet has assembled a cast of French beauties for "Little White Lies"; music rules in David M. Rosenthal's "Janie Jones," starring Abigail Breslin; Max Winkler follows a wedding crasher in "Ceremony"; Rainn Wilson dons a superhero costume in James Gunn's "Super"; and Larysa Kondracki tackles sex trafficking in "The Whistleblower."

Toronto is something of a three-ring circus. Although much of the spotlight is focused on awards-season launches and domestic acquisitions, it's also growing as an international sales market, where relationships are cultivated in between the full-court press of Cannes in May and AFM in November.

Among the bigger players is IM Global, in town to peddle "Judge Dredd 3D," an adaptation of the British comic series to star Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby.

"Historically, Toronto has been more of a festival than a market; we feel that in the last couple of years, it's become more of a marketplace," said CEO Stuart Ford, who'll be headquartered at the Hyatt Regency.

Sierra Pictures, Myriad Pictures and Echo Bridge Entertainment are planning to set up shop as well.

Inferno is offering a buyers' screening of "Tomorrow, When the War Began," screenwriter Stuart Beattie's directorial debut that just nabbed the third-biggest opening for an Australian film in its home country.

Exclusive will use the fest to garner press for its Hammer title "Let Me In," which Relativity is releasing stateside, but it also will cultivate foreign buyers with private screenings of "The Way Back" and "The Resident" for its distributors.

"Toronto isn't a presale market where you have the full range of buyers," Exclusive international sales president Alex Walton said. But, president Guy East added, "our main target is making worldwide acquisitions."