Toronto lesson: War is swell?

IFC and Summit bet on challenging pickups

TORONTO -- A pair of deals for two ambitious but challenging films were sealed Wednesday in Toronto, as IFC and Summit each picked up a pic set in war-time.

IFC nabbed all North American rights to Steven Soderbergh's twin-bill, four-hour "Che," the two-part story of the revolutionary icon's campaigns in Cuba and Bolivia in a low seven-figure deal.

Summit scooped up U.S. rights to Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," an action pic about an Army squad defusing bombs in Iraq, for about $1.5 million

The IFC deal, which closed Tuesday night, took many in Toronto by surprise, since there had been rumors that Magnolia was negotiating for rights to the pic, which debuted to a mixed reponse at the Festival de Cannes.

However, talks between financier/seller Wild Bunch and Magnolia ultimately broke down over marketing and release questions.

At the same time, IFC execs Jonathan Sehring and Arianna Bocco had been staying in touch with Wild Bunch since the Croisette debut. They presented a case to the French outfit (with which they had a fruitful collaboration on last year's Palme d'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), to producer Laura Bickford and to Soderbergh that IFC was in the best position to handle the movie. Soderbergh was particularly keen on the VOD option that IFC offered. The negotiations concluded when Josh Sapan, president of IFC parent Rainbow Media, flew into Toronto and became involved in the negotiations.

The pickup is a coup for IFC, marking one of the highest-profile acquisitions in its history. It will also be the most expensive film by far to open in theaters and on cable/VOD simultaneously.

During the summer, Wild Bunch said at least four U.S buyers were pursuing the film, for what it apparently hoped would be for a $3 million to $ 4 million upfront purchase that would quickly reimburse the film's Spanish investors. If that wasn't possible, Wild Bunch was willing to forego an upfront payment and craft a deal which would provide comparable cash in the long run through other incentives and deal points. In the end, the company settled for an unspecified lower upfront figure from IFC.

Meanwhile, as negotiations heated up over "Che," Summit purchased the tense thriller "Hurt Locker" several days after its well-received Toronto bow. Summit originally offered an estimated $2 million but the filmmakers, repped by CAA, decided to continue shopping the pic. When they returned to Summit, the company lowered its offer to closer to $1 million. Eventually, the parties agreed to meet somewhere in the middle in a deal that provided a significant backend for the filmmakers.

Each release will present challenges.

For Summit, the trick will be to market a film that's set in Iraq -- a setting that has not exactly excited filmgoers -- as a broader action title.

"We went into this with our eyes wide open," said Summit co-chairman and CEO Rob Friedman. "But we think the action and drama this movie creates will overwhelm any of the anxieties about the Iraq setting."

The company plans on releasing the movie no earlier than the spring.

In the case of "Che," IFC will first offer the four-hour version of the movie in a one-week, Academy-qualifying run in Los Angeles and New York in December. In January, it will roll out part one, beginning in L.A., New York and a few other cities and quickly ramping up to the 300-400 theaters, including New York's Ziegfeld Theatre, that are willing to play a film appearing day-and-date in theaters and on VOD.

The second part of the film will follow a week or two later, with both parts then remaining available in theaters.

Soderbergh on Wednesday acknowledged the challenges in releasing the film. "I know it's an unusual commercial proposition," he said, referring to the pic's length. "We're hoping that the combination of curiosity and brand identification makes audiences show up." A total of about twelve minutes have been cut from the Cannes version, which clocked in at just over four hours.

Also at the fest, a deal was close Wednesday for "Every Little Step," a doc about "A Chorus Line," with Senator and Magnolia said to be circling. The Paris Hilton doc "Paris, Not France" also piqued interest and could wind up with a pricey TV deal as well as a smaller theatrical one.

Steven Zeitchik reported from Toronto; Gregg Goldstein reported from New York. Borys Kit in Toronto contributed to this report.