Toronto 2011: Market in Early Slump

Only one deal so far, but a fresh crop of screenings is increasing interest.

The Toronto Film Festival is off to a sluggish start in terms of major U.S. acquisitions, with a number of titles failing to live up to their hype and spark a cascade of dealmaking.

The only film as of Sunday night to nab domestic distribution is Lasse Hallstrom’s British comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. A number of domestic distributors circled the comedy after its world premiere Saturday night, with CBS Films emerging the preferred bidder by Sunday.

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Another title popping is horror pic You’re Next, which played in the Midnight Madness section Saturday and is being eyed by several buyers, including Paramount Insurge. You’re Next is likely a smaller play, as is Australian film The Hunter, starring Willem Dafoe, and the French drama Chickens With Plums, both of which played well over during the weekend.

Some buyers also are interested in Jennifer Westfeldt’s new comedy Friends with Kids, in which she stars opposite Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, among others. But Friends With Kids was one of several buzzed-about titles playing Friday and Saturday night that fell short of expectations, at least in terms of sparking an immediate bidding war.

They include Fernando Meirelles’ 360, scripted by Peter Morgan; Julian Farino’s May-December comedy-romance The Oranges; and Oren Moverman’s Rampart, the L.A. cop thriller starring Woody Harrelson and based on a story by James Ellroy; and Sarah Polley’s second directorial effort, Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.

It’s not that these films won’t find a domestic distributor, but each has challenges that will
slow down the sales process. “It’s not great here,” said U.S. independent distributor, “but there are titles yet to see, including Ten-Year, Hysteria and Peace, Love & Misunderstanding.”

Buyers said Salmon Fishing was a complete movie — great director, great cast, great story — explaning the heated interest. The film was produced by BBC Films, Kudos Pictures and Lionsgate UK.

Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) penned the adapted screenplay, based on Paul Torday’s best-selling novel about a stuffy British fisheries expert who helps an Arab sheik introduce salmon to the wadis of Yemen.

UTA is representing domestic rights, while Lionsgate International is handling foreign (Lionsgate UK will distribute the film in the U.K.) and CBS Films’ willingness to pay $4 million to $5 million for U.S. rights underscores that domestic buyers remain hungry for product that has the potential to break out beyond just an art house crowd.

Generally speaking, independent distributors have been on a buying spree for the last year; that’s not expected to stop if the right product is there.

As an example, Steve McQueen’s Shame, despite an expected NC-17 rating, closed a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight after playing at the Venice and Telluride film festivals on its way to Toronto.

The international presales market at Toronto also is off to a slow start, compared with Cannes in May or Toronto last year, when Stuart Ford’s IM Global whipped up $30 million in business for Dredd 3D. But there are glimmers of the landscape heating up for foreign-language films, as buzz from Venice and Toronto industry screenings starts to filter through.

Alexander Sokurov’s 2 ½-hour take on the German epic Faust got a major boost when it won the Golden Lion in Venice. Sales agent Films Distribution closed deals for multiple territories coming into Toronto and has offers from the U.K., Spain, France and Japan for the title.

Films Distribution’s Belgian title Come As You Are also generated plenty of buzz, closing deals with France (Les Films 13) and Canada (K Film Amerique). The tragicomedy follows three handi- capped twentysomethings who take a trip to Spain in the hope of losing their virginity.

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.