Tight Toronto market for indie pics

Industry mood upbeat, but big deals may be scarce

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NEW YORK -- Last year, as the indie-sales market was cratering, acquisition execs walked into the Toronto International Film Festival and found two dramas for which they were willing to pay seven figures.

A year later, those buys have proved savvy: "The Wrestler" was one of the dramatic breakouts of 2008 for Fox Searchlight, while "The Hurt Locker" is on its way to becoming that for Summit.

Industryites' mood is generally brighter entering Toronto this year, or at least more accepting of the dark realities. But a seven-figure deal may be even harder to find at this year's fest, which begins Thursday.

"I tell filmmakers that in this climate, don't count on a studio buying your movie. If they do, it's like winning the lottery," said one publicist who works on high-profile acquisition targets.

Toronto is a festival known for serious movies, but many distributors who typically release those types of pictures have cut back or disappeared. Nonetheless, programmers have slated a number of pedigreed dramas, and sales agents are carefully positioning those pictures in the hope that theirs are the exception to the rule.

The list includes Neil Jordan's whimsical mermaid pic "Ondine" and Tom Ford's directorial debut "A Single Man," both packaged and repped by CAA; "Solitary Man," a look at an auto impresario (Michael Douglas) going through a set of crises, from "Ocean's Eleven" scribes Brian Koppelman and David Levien; "Love and Other impossible Pursuits," a Don Roos-Natalie Portman collaboration centering on a dysfunctional family; and "Mother & Child," an adoption drama from Rodrigo Garcia that Graham Taylor's WME Independent is selling.

Many of these films have been withheld from buyers in the hope that a single gangbuster Toronto screening -- like "The Wrestler" had last year -- drives interest.

"We made the decision when 'A Single Man' started production not to show a single frame of footage," said Stuart Ford, CEO of IM Global, which is selling foreign rights to the title. "We wanted distributors to buy it based on the movie, not what people expected a Tom Ford movie to be."

Also in the prestige-picture category, Atom Egoyan's latest drama "Chloe" -- which grabbed some unlikely attention this year when star Liam Neeson left the set to grieve for wife Natasha Richardson -- will look to capitalize on a generally generous Toronto audience to land a deal.

And Jon Amiel's Charles Darwin tale "Creation," the opening-night pic whose Canadian theatrical rights HanWay sold on Tuesday, has a timely tension in its religion vs. science premise. But the period biopic also arrives at a time when dramatic genres have fallen out of favor with many of the distributors still standing.

When distributors do step forward at the fest, they will be doing so with smaller offers. Buyers and sellers rarely agree on anything, but they do agree there will be deals, but for a lot less money. "I think that we may see several acquisitions. The question is at what price," said Hal Sadoff of ICM, which among other titles is selling the Ben Barnes-toplined "Dorian Gray," an update on the Oscar Wilde classic.

From the other side of the table, Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Michael Barker says that the number of buyers that have been active at recent festivals -- a group that includes his own company as well as IFC and Magnolia -- will likely remain so north of the border. "I believe there's still a lot of competition. But things are competitive at a much lower price," he said.

Price tags could get something of a boost if some of the more commercially conceived fare catches on. Among the hopefuls are Derrick Borte's "The Joneses," a Demi Moore-David Duchovny comedy, repped by ICM, about a witness-protection family whose cover is blown when they win the lottery; and Tim Blake Nelson's pot dramedy "Leaves of Grass," which offers viewers the chance to see Edward Norton play identical twins.

"If (previous directorial effort) "The Grey Zone," which is considerably darker, could get distribution, then even in this environment I believe a movie like 'Leaves of Grass' can get distribution," said Blake Nelson, citing the film's comedic aspects and Norton's performance.

For buyers and sellers, a cautious acquisitions environment and a glut of mediocre films have made predictions harder than ever, "There are a lot of movies that seem promising but are stll execution-dependent," Liongsate acquisitions and co-productions president Jason Constantine said, using a buzzword frequently on the lips of buyers and sellers.

Meanwhile, perhaps because of their built-in audience, genre pics have become attractive for specialty units. Several will make their play at Toronto,

George Romero's zombie tale "Survival of the Dead" will look for a deal, playing a single date on the first Saturday. And filmmakers will try again on "Solomon Kane," Michael J. Bassett's James Purefoy-toplined adaptation of Robert Howard's pulp tales. The film yielded mixed reactions when it screened in the Cannes market this year, but it's been recut in the hope of attracting buyers anew.

Despite all the questions, however, the sales climate hasn't entirely chilled at one of the world's most active fests. "We've never left Toronto without buying a movie," Barker said.

Borys Kit in Los Angeles contributed to this report.