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The Don stares down his cinematic opponents

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

TORONTO — If Canadian cinema were to have a Godfather moment, surely this would be it.

Tonight, for a record 10th time, a Robert Lantos-produced film - Fugitive Pieces, based on Anne Michaels's best-selling novel and directed by Jeremy Podeswa - will kick off the Toronto International Film Festival.

Then, on Saturday night, TIFF will confer the same gala treatment upon another Lantos production, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. By mid-September, this violent tale of sexual slavery and London's Russian mafia will be playing in 1,500 theatres across the continent.

The early buzz about both films has been bullish.

A heady time for the 58-year-old Mr. Lantos, the only child of a struggling garage mechanic and jack-of-all-trades who fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1958 for Montevideo and then Montreal.

But if the Godfather - responsible over three decades for more than 30 films, including Oscar nominee Being Julia, Golden Globe nominee Sunshine, and seven films with Atom Egoyan - is gloating, you'd never know it.

"Like an experienced marathon runner who has just begun the race," Mr. Lantos says, invoking one of the trademark analogies, "you only feel good, if you feel good, at the finish line. And I know what lies ahead."

What lies ahead is not only Mr. Lantos's future production slate, which includes Atom Egoyan's next project, Adoration, and, if he can ever find the right screenplay solution (now in its fourth incarnation) Mordecai Richler's final novel, Barney's Version, but an even more ambitious agenda - the finish line extended.

Less than a year after selling his equity stake in Toronto-based ThinkFilm, Mr. Lantos last month jumped decisively back into the distribution game, setting up two new companies that will respectively handle Canadian and foreign features and documentaries.

Does he need the chronic headaches of film distribution - the crippling overhead, the endless demands for reporting results from noisome producers? Not financially.

Mr Lantos is a self-made multimillionaire with a home in verdant Forest Hill, another in Los Angeles, a cottage on Muskoka's Lake Joseph and a late- model Mercedes in the driveway. Once married to actress Jennifer Dale, with whom he had two children, his name has been linked with a long string of attractive women.

By turns driven and willful, charming and self-deprecating, Mr. Lantos swims (he once played on Canada's national water polo team), practises yoga, lifts weights, and dreams about writing a book, a memoir of his often disjointed, but never less than interesting, life. The new venture almost certainly means that project will be put on hold, again.

But "psychologically," he concedes, "I need it."

An unprecedented flood tide of money has been washing over the Hollywood Hills and other film capitals for the past few years, courtesy of private and corporate equity. The result is a cornucopia of new films, much of it seeking distribution homes.

All of this "makes access by independent distributors more privileged than it has ever been," Mr. Lantos explains, sprawled on a couch in his midtown Toronto offices. "It's a buyer's market for the foreseeable future. So I can't help myself. There are too many opportunities to make money." It's classic Lantos, to jump at opportunities. He was, after all, one of the few players to actually invest in the flagging Canadian film industry two decades ago, taking advantage of government rules that favoured Canadian distribution companies and filmmakers.

Now he is at TIFF, ready to mark his territory once more. This time, though, others sense the opportunity, too. Mr. Lantos has competition and it will be fierce. Toronto-based Entertainment One has recently set up a distribution division, hiring a former Lantos colleague, Patrice Theroux, to run it. Earlier this year, New York investment house Goldman Sachs and its Canadian partner, EdgeStone Capital, paid $193-million for a 49-per-cent stake in Motion Picture Distribution, the releasing arm of Alliance Atlantis Communications. MPD will be run by Mr. Lantos's old friend and former colleague, Victor Loewy. Depending on what deals go down over the next 10 days, this year's festival may be the turning point for the industry.

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