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Big deals swung amid TIFF buzz

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Feeling sorry for the thousand or so film buyers, sales agents and producers who came to this year's Toronto International Film Festival? After all, they must be tired from watching oh so many films and traipsing the chi-chi streets of Yorkville. It's a tough job.

But by most accounts, it was another successful festival business-wise, with 40-per-cent more sales delegates attending this year than last, coming from more than 530 companies and 47 countries, all descending on the city with cellphones glued to ears, and deals to close.

Because the Toronto festival isn't a formal market, there aren't any booths or designated locations where film distributors, i.e. the buyers, go to purchase the rights to a film from sales agents and producers, i.e. the sellers. Everything is done on the fly, in hotel lobbies and restaurants and especially by cellphone.

But the bigger the festival gets each year, the more work it takes to capture that elusive buzz. One sales agent representing a major, well-regarded documentary said that he normally comes to the festival with as many as seven documentaries. This year, he represented only two: There are simply too many films vying for buyers, he said.

On the other hand, Jeff Sackman, who runs independent distributor ThinkFilm, said he doesn't believe the festival has changed all that much for niche buyers like him. For ThinkFilm, purchasing distribution rights for just a film or two is a success.

Indeed, his company acquired worldwide rights to a/k/a Tommy Chong, a documentary about the comedian's hassles with American authorities for manufacturing bongs. It was a coup for ThinkFilm, which had targeted coming into the festival.

What Sackman feels has changed at the festival, however, is the star wattage and Hollywood presence, a side which the press clamours for, but which has relatively little to do with ThinkFilm's art-house market.

And there were a number of deals this year with a strong Hollywood sheen to them. Among them was Fox Searchlight Pictures' acquisition of worldwide distribution rights to Thank You for Smoking, director Jason Reitman's satire about Big Tobacco. The movie was bought for a reported $6.5-million to $7-million (U.S.) and incited an angry bidding war between Fox and Paramount, with both claiming victory earlier this week. Although insiders said that the ink was now dry on the deal with Fox, it still wasn't clear late in the week whether Paramount would dispute the deal or not.

Fox Searchlight also purchased Trust the Man, a romantic comedy starring Julianne Moore, for between $6-million and $7-million. Another bidding highlight was Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which stars the comedian and a host of rap artists, was bought by Universal's niche distributor, Focus Films, for roughly $6-million, according to Variety. Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Miramax purchased the basketball documentary The Heart of the Game.

One hit with distributors among the small Canadian films on offer was the music documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, which sold its U.S. theatrical and home-video rights to Warner. The film's Canadian distributor, Seville Pictures, was eager to advertise the distribution deal during the festival while it was also working on separate Australian, Japanese and Scandinavian deals. The Warner deal had actually been in the works for months, but Warner and Seville signed during the festival, thereby helping to give the film that little extra jolt of publicity.

And yet signing distribution deals isn't the only business done at TIFF. Take the case of The River of Blood, a feature still in development about Somali-born, Toronto-based rapper K'naan. Its creators came to participate in Telefilm Canada's Pitch This! competition for $10,000 in seed money.

They didn't win, but they did entice a number of potential co-producers and backers interested in the film and booked a meeting with an agent from William Morris in the hope of finding a director for the project.

And so, as the film-industry crowd leaves the festival, awash in optimism, there are of course no guarantees that the deals done will ultimately turn into box-office hits. You just need to believe the buzz.

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