Toronto rolls out the red carpet

Films already finding buyers as fest heats up

TORONTO -- Even before the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival kicked off Thursday with a gala premiere of Paul Gross' wartime romance "Passchendaele," a number of films in the lineup, ranging from the horror film "Vinyan" to the lyrical documentary "Of Time and the City," found buyers.

In the first of what sellers hope will be a flood of Toronto buys, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group acquired domestic and Australian rights to "Vinyan." Fabrice Du Welz's film stars Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart as a couple searching for their missing son in a jungle filled with feral children.

Wild Bunch is repping sales for the France-U.K.-Belgium co-production, which premiered last weekend at the Venice Film Festival and bows in Toronto tonight. Release plans haven't yet been determined.

At the opening-night screening of "Passchendaele" at Roy Thomas Hall, the invitation-only audience embraced the epic romance as a crowd-pleaser, in contrast to recent years in which homegrown films that opened Toronto underwhelmed.

Canadian actor-director Gross, best known for his star turn in the 1990s CBS drama "Due South," appeared on stage to introduce to his fellow cast members, who include Gil Bellows, Caroline Dhavernas and Landon Liboiron.

The film's cast was welcomed onstage by a 20-piece regimental pipe band which played a Vimy Ridge fanfare in keeping with the First World war theme

The film's producer, Niv Fichman, thanked oil-rich Alberta for injecting $5.5 million into the homegrown movie, which has a $20 million budget.

At the Astral Media pre-gala cocktail, the talk concerned how this year's indie offerings would fare in the face of a downturn for specialty distributors as the festival's unofficial market gets under way Friday.

Three films that had 2008 Festival de Cannes premieres are making their Toronto appearances with freshly inked distribution deals in tow. Regent Releasing nabbed North American rights to Brillante Mendoza's stark Filipino family drama "Serbis." The official Cannes selection chronicles a family forced to turn their dilapidated movie theater into a hustler-filled porn venue. They grapple with bigamy, unwanted pregnancy, incest and other issues amidst a harsh landscape.

The Philippines/French production has its North American premiere in Toronto tonight, followed by a U.S. premiere Oct. 12 at the New York Film Festival. A theatrical rollout for the foreign-language film in select U.S. cities is set for this winter. Regent's Mark Reinhart negotiated the deal with Fortissimo Films' Michael J. Werner.

Strand Releasing picked up U.S. rights to another Cannes premiere, Terence Davies' autobiographical docu "Of Time and the City," which hits Toronto on Sunday. The highly lyrical take on the director's childhood in Liverpool transitions from black-and-white to color as it moves from the mid-20th century to the present. Strand is planning a January release, with the movie set for an October bow in the U.K. Hanway Films repped the filmmakers in the deal.

Microdistributor the Cinema Guild acquired U.S. rights to "24 City," Jia Zhangke's unusual docu about a weapons factory converted into luxury condos. The film, which also premiered in Cannes and has a Sunday Toronto bow, will be shown at the New York Film Festival later this month and released early next year.

While there were lamentations in Venice last week about that fest's lack of star wattage, Toronto shouldn't suffer any such shortage. Brad Pitt comes to town this weekend to tout the Coen brothers' dark comedy "Burn After Reading," Keira Knightley follows with "The Duchess," Spike Lee will bring his World War II drama "Miracle at St. Anna," Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear will tub-thump for the comedy "Ghost Town," and the cop drama "Pride and Glory" will bring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell.

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