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Festival's deals are expected to surpass last year's $50-million total

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Away from the stars and the spotlights, there's a parallel Toronto International Film Festival going on, a festival of film-industry buyers and sales agents pushing their way through hotel lobbies, talking into cellphones and, oh yeah, seeing the occasional movie. For that festival, the mood this year is - as it usually is - mixed.

The trade publication Variety has noted a certain wariness toward all the serious, political films at this year's festival, but others have described this as a strength. And, as usual, many will complain that many of the standout films of the festival have been snapped up long ago by distributors. The British film Brick Lane, for instance, was bought by Sony Pictures Classics a week before being shown at the festival in order to beat the competition.

But there are still plenty of deals being done unofficially in restaurants and hotel rooms. A small Canadian or foreign film sold to an international broadcaster may not seem like much of a headline grabber, but multiply that many times over and you get a sense of the volume of transactions.

Unlike last year, the festival didn't send out a press release highlighting the films still looking for distribution this fall.

But it's not playing down its business side and the numerous services it provides the industry, such as making a detailed list of what distribution rights in which countries are still available for which films. There are also 10 per cent more sales agents attending this year's fest than last year and 15 per cent more buyers. Giulia Filippelli, director of the TIFF sales and industry office, added that the amount of business done at the festival is expected to exceed last year's $50-million.

There are indeed a number of films that come to the festival still looking for distribution and wind up scoring seven-figure deals.

One this year was Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor, a film about a widower finding two illegal immigrants in his New York City apartment. The film came to the festival without a distribution deal because it had no major actors in its cast. But the buzz was immediate and McCarthy was so swamped with calls for meetings that he had to cancel his first day of press interviews. The film was ultimately picked up by Hollywood-based Overture Films for a reported $1-million (U.S.).

Actor Stuart Townsend's feature-film directorial debut, Battle in Seattle, with a cast that includes Charlize Theron, is widely seen as being on the cusp of finalizing distribution. Meanwhile, ThinkFilm and TVA Films have signed a deal worth $2.5-million to $3-million for another directorial debut, Helen Hunt's Then She Found Me. And Variety reported that The Weinstein Co. bought the British film Boy A and the Spanish thriller King of the Hill.

Montreal-based Equinoxe Films inked an agreement with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment for Canadian distribution rights for three films, including the well-received Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Mortimer. The international distribution rights for the Canadian film All Hat was scooped up by Myriad Pictures. Alliance Films already had the Canadian rights to the film, while U.S. rights are still up for grabs.

All Hat's producer, Jennifer Jonas, explained that the festival simply "focuses everybody." It gives the deal-making a more urgent air, even though the people she deals with at the festival are the same people she does business with year-round.

Some of the major business finalized during the festival doesn't even have to do with films playing TIFF, such as the recent announcement that Miramax purchased the U.S. rights for the yet-to-be-completed film Blindness for $5-million. Or take Mongrel Media's announcement yesterday about the creation of its new Writers' Unit, in partnership with Sienna Films and Foundry Films. The initiative will be a talent lab for Canadian screenwriters and directors to develop projects aiming for wide audiences.

It's also important to note that TIFF works in different ways for dramatic features and documentaries. "All the people who come to Toronto are basically here to buy fiction films," said Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit (Canada), which specializes in documentary film sales.

With a report from Michael Posner

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