Toronto's film buyers see the light

Dark films not resonating as well this year

TORONTO -- The Toronto International Film Festival has lightened up this year.

While sales got off to a slow start during the packed first weekend, the fest itself showed a clear split -- the uplifting and lighter pictures resonated while the darker films tended to strike out.

"Last year it seemed like ever movie could win an Oscar. At TIFF this year it's not the same deal," said Kevin Smith, who had one of the breakouts with its crowd-pleasing raunchy comedy "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," from the Weinstein Co. "But it's okay to lighten up once in a while."

Darren Aronofksy's "The Wrestler," riding a triumphant wave after its win in Venice, earned a gushing response at its Sunday night premiere in Toronto. Many lead buyers were in attendance and a deal was expected to come as early as late Sunday night.

Though a drama that plumbs one man's ups and downs, the film offers uplift as it marks several comebacks. With their tale of a wrestler making one last push for glory, both the film's star Mickey Rourke and its director Aronofsky (who whiffed with his "The Fountain" at Toronto two years ago) are making their own comebacks of sorts.

The CAA title garnered momentum after its Friday Venice debut and was on the lips of every buyer, with the feeling that an acquirer would have to turn around and release the pic -- and go into awards mode -- quickly.

The sales scene, as expected, took its time getting going. Fortissimo Films sold the John Malkovich pic "Disgrace" to Maximum Films in Canada and Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's "Soul Power" went to Ocean in France, but no U.S. deals were sealed as the weekend drew to a close.

But that didn't seem to depress anyone's spirits. It's a notable turnaround from 2007, when dark films dominated the festival and the fall season that followed. This year, both the industry and the festival-goers are sparking to the decidely lighter fare.

"Who said independent films had to be bummers and Hollywood films had to be fun?" said Mark Urman, the outgoing ThinkFilm exec who's taking over as president of Senator Entertainment U.S.

One of the weekend's hottest films was the Lebron James doc "More Than a Game," an inspirational film centering on James' high-school basketball team and the power of friendship. The film got a huge reception at its Saturday debut, with a number of distribs circling the Endeavor-repped pic.

Another fest breakout was Fox Searchlight/Warner Bros.' "Slumdog Millionaire." Though serious and gritty, the Danny Boyle film went over big at the public screening Sunday night, with the audience giving a Cannes-like extended clapping session after the pic ended.

One of the best overall receptions came for Columbia's "Nick ‘n Norah's Infinite Playlist," the sweet Michael Cera comedy about young love during one night in New York City, which drew a big standing ovation.

Even the war movies had a more inspirational tone, as demonstrated by "Miracle at St. Anna," Spike Lee's World War II crowd-pleaser about a group of African-American soldiers who defy the odds, which Disney will release this month. And uplifting David vs. Goliath themes played out in director Iannis Smaragdis' English-language "El Greco," about the famed 16th century painter and his battle against the regime during the Spanish Inquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum, dark dramas -- of the kind that that dominated the fall schedule last year -- were foundering. Guillermo Ariaga's much anticipated directorial debut "The Burning Plain," which is seeking distribution, drew a lukewarm reaction when it screened Friday night. Some buyers who had come in interested in the Charlize Theron-Kim Basinger intergenerational drama left saying things like it was "too bleak."

A film festival mood can be an unwieldy thing to capture, particularly at Toronto, which has a high volume of films across many genres. But there was little doubt that the both the audience and studio zeitgeist seemed centered on more redeeming and humorous fare.

No filmmakers encapsulated the shift more than the Coen brothers. Last year, the auteurs had one of the breakouts of the festival with the dark and bloody "No Country For Old Men." This year they had a hot opening-weekend title with Focus' light and goofy "Burn After Reading." "They're very different," said Joel Coen, adding that ""that's good (because) you dont want to repeat yourself."

And Miramax's "Blindness," Fernando Meirelles dystopian drama about a city struck by a spiritual plauge of blindness, continued the tepid audience response that began when the film unspooled at the openng night film at the Festival de Cannes.

With more light fare still to come -- Jenifer Aniston's romantic comedy "Management" was expected to draw strong buyer interest at its Sunday night screening -- film fest vets expected the trend to continue. As one sales agent noted about this year's fest: "Crowd-pleaser is a good word."

Gregg Goldstein contributed to this report from New York. Etan Vlessing contributed from Toronto.