Toronto's film buyers see the light


The Toronto International Film Festival has lightened up this year.

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

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

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

Although it's a drama that plumbs one man's ups and downs, the film offers uplift as it marks several comebacks. With the tale of a wrestler making one last push for glory, both the film's star, Mickey Rourke, and 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 Venice debut Friday and was on the lips of every buyer, with the feeling that an acquirer would have to turn around and release the film — and go into awards mode — quickly.

The sales scene, as expected, took its time getting going. Fortissimo Films sold the John Malkovich film "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. This year, the industry and the festivalgoers are sparking to the lighter fare.

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

One of the weekend's hottest films was the LeBron James documentary "More Than a Game," an inspirational film centering on James' high school basketball team. It received a huge reception at its Saturday debut, with a number of distributors circling the Endeavor-repped film.

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

One of the best overall receptions came for Columbia's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," the Michael Cera comedy about young love during one night in New York. It 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 black 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 Spanish Inquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum, dark dramas — of the kind that dominated the fall schedule last year — were foundering. Guillermo Arriaga's much anticipated directorial debut "The Burning Plain," which is seeking distribution, drew a lukewarm reaction when it screened Friday night.

No filmmakers encapsulated the Toronto 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."

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

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