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TORONTO ’07 | Blast Off: Fest Serves As Launch Pad, Igniting Buzz For New Films Hoping to Catch Fire

TORONTO '07 | Blast Off: Fest Serves As Launch Pad, Igniting Buzz For New Films Hoping to Catch Fire

In the TV business, networks launch new fall shows at an annual “press tour” for critics and journalists. Upcoming shows are previewed while TV marketers wine and dine media & industry at lavish parties. Similarly, the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival had the look and feel of a press tour for the film business. Studios, specialty divisions and smaller companies launched fall films this weekend in Canada, while some independent producers shopped new titles that are hoping to secure distribution. And amidst it all, the industry began whispering more intensely about Oscar season. One seasoned industry executive, from a studio-backed distribution unit, praised Toronto on Sunday succinctly as, “Still the ultimate launching pad for a film in North America.”

Buying, Selling and Speculating

On Friday morning, ThinkFilm once again packed buyers and sellers into the lobby of the Windsor Arms Hotel for their annual power breakfast. And later that night the company swooped in on Helen Hunt‘s “Then She Found Me,” produced by acclaimed boutique production outfit Killer Films. After overnight negotiations, Think pulled the trigger on the first acquisition deal of the Toronto fest in a pact pegged at about $2 million according to Hollywood trade paper estimates. While the acquisition apparently falls outside of a recent first look deal between ThinkFilm and Killer Films, it also comes as Think continues to position itself as a bigger player after being acquired last year by Capitol Films’ David Bergstein.

Sipping coffee and snacking on bagels and danish at the ThinkFilm breakfast, insiders buzzed about Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente‘s impending departure from HDNet Films and compared notes on the changes at John SlossCinetic Media, with former CAA attorney Bart Walker joining the company as it adds a talent management division. One industry competitor wondered how Cinetic would fare with two big name film sales rivals now working together as partners, while another respectfully admitted that the marriage has the potential to create an even more important powerhouse outfit.

The Weinstein Company’s Glen Basner with “Boy A” director Director John Crowley (left) and actor Andrew Garfield. Photo by Peter Knegt/indieWIRE

A few pre-fest pacts were also announced this weekend in Toronto, keeping trade reporters busy. The Weinstein Company unveiled its worldwide deal for John Crowley‘s “Boy A,” described as a crowd-pleaser by those who saw the film over the weekend, while IFC Films confirmed its acquisition of Baltasar Kormakur‘s “Jar City,” the award-winner from the Karlovy International Film Festival that was a hit last weeeked at the Telluride Film Festival. Meanwhile, Strand Releasing revealed its deal for North American rights to Jacques Nolot‘s “Before I Forget” ahead of the film’s press and industry debut on Sunday evening. The film screened in the Director’s Fortnight section in Cannes this year and marks the second time Strand will release a Nolot movie after handling his previous effort, “Porn Theater.” Finally, the biggest deal of the festival so far seems to be Miramax’s pre-buy pact for Fernando Meirelles‘ “Blindness“.

By the end of the weekend, a few new films were tipped as likely targets for acquisition. In particular, all eyes are on a pair of American entries, with observers wondering if Alan Ball‘s “Nothing is Private” and Tom McCarthy‘s “The Visitor” will sell. While Ball’s “Private,” from award-winning independent producer Ted Hope, boasts a cast that includes Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, and Maria Bello, McCarthy’s “Visitor” features less familiar faces.

Surveyed about the biz side of the festival so far, buyers were still cautious at this early stage, saying that the fest lacked standouts or surprises, so far. A buyer from a mid-size label told indieWIRE, “the fest has been about what I expected; lots of imperfect product that has some value but not at the level of expectation from sellers and producers.” Continuing, the executive griped, “Overall, it’s been shockingly front loaded, and far less available then in prior years (the most unavailable films at a fest in recent memory),” and concluding that had the individual’s company not already earmarked an acquisition, the buyer would be “freaking out.” While another acquistions exec from a larger company summed it up simply, “Very light acquisitions market as predicted.” [Eugene Hernandez]

That’s Just “Religulous”

“I see empty seats! I was told this was sold out,” Bill Maher yelled into the crowd at Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre Sunday afternoon. To his right, “Borat” director Larry Charles had a suggestion as to why. “Its for the Archdioceses of Toronto.” Charles and Maher, in Toronto to promote their upcoming doc, “Religulous,” were joined on stage by Toronto International Film Festival programmer Thom Powers, who moderated a discussion between two of America’s most prominent comic geniuses. Charles and Maher remarkably had not met prior to making “Religulous”. “If there was a God, this would be fate,” joked Charles. “This was our passion project.” Lionsgate teased the unfinished film- twenty minutes of which were shown to constant and resounding laughter, as it chronicles Maher and Charles as they travel the world discussing religion with various “experts” (focusing mostly on the “big 3”: Islam, Christianity and Judiasm). “We explore the origins of the beliefs and then show you what’s going on today,” said Charles. “It’s a suspense film.”

Lionsgate’s Tom Ortenberg (right) with Larry Charles and Bill Maher. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

When asked about other comedic takes on religion (such as this summer’s “Evan Almighty“), Charles explained that while those films “poke fun,” “we stab it to death.” Their goal was evident throughout the nearly 90 minute presentation, in which both men brought the audience into bursts of applause for comical quips on the absurdity of current religion. “I should be an anti-preacher,” Maher decided. “This is my Sunday service.”

Both Maher and Charles discussed their own relationships with their subject matter. “Its been an evolution,” Maher deadpanned. “I used to make a career out of making fun of my religious childhood.” Half Jewish and half Catholic, Maher joked that he “used to go to confession with a lawyer.” Charles, technically Jewish but with secular parents, actually had at one point wanted to be a rabbi. “Are you out your goddamn mind,” his parents had reacted. “Get bah mitzfahed and get the hell out of there!”

But not everything was about getting a laugh. Charles spoke poignantly about what motivates people’s religious beliefs. “We should be mature enough as a species to not need that crutch to be nice to each other,” he said. Maher warned about the severe reprecussions of religion, summarizing it as “stupid and dangerous.” He added that “religion is just like a movie. It needs an ending.” Cue uproarious applause.

Though they could not say with certainty when “Religulous” will find its way to theaters, they agreed that they were eyeing a Spring release. When an audience member inquired if the release made either of them nervous for their personal safety, Maher quickly simply answered: “No. Its a comedy.” [Peter Knegt]

Wining, Dining, and Hyping

Even companies that weren’t buying movies this weekend were active with events to launch their new films. Bashes from Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics were among the biggest, but Focus Features and The Weinstein Company also joined the party. Friday night’s celebration at Opus for Ang Lee‘s “Lust, Caution” gave guests a chance to salute Lee a few hours before he hopped on a jet to Italy to receive the Golden Lion where his film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. At the same time, TWC celebrated Anton Corbijn‘s “Control,” acquired in Cannes, at a bash that drew staffers from rival companies for 80’s music, Stella Artois, and cocktails inside Variety and AMC’s Film Lounge, while the following night the company toasted its acquisition of “Boy A” with a private dinner at Pangaea. Meanwhile, nearby on the same night Picturehouse celebrated Sergei Bodrov‘s “Mongol” with supper at Prego and 24 hours earlier they toasted Juan Antonio Bayona‘s “The Orphanage at Flow on the fest’s first Friday, the exact same night that they celebrated Guillermo Del Toro‘s “Pan’s Labryinth” one year ago in Toronto.

Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker with “Persepolis” vocal star Chiara Mastroianni. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

At Michelle’s on Saturday night for Sony Pictures Classics’ biggest annual bash yet, company heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard worked the restaurant introducing journalists, critics and bloggers from across to U.S. to filmmakers and talent from around the world during a cocktail/dinner party that stretched to four hours. “Persepolis,” “The Band’s Visit,” “Jane Austen Book Club,” “The Counterfeiters” and “My Kid Could Paint That,” “Brick Lane,” “Sleuth,” “When Did You Last See Your Father,” and “Jimmy Carter Man From Plains” were in the spotlight. Meanwhile, downtown at the The Boiler House, Fox Searchlight gathered their own talent from “Juno,” “The Savages” and “Under The Same Moon” (La Misma Luna) for a sprawling, outdoor, four-hour fiesta of their own.

Capping the busy night, Miramax threw a dinner on Saturday to celebrate the Coen Brothers‘ latest film, “No Country For Old Men,” where Joel Coen and Ethan Coen were joined by cast members Jarvier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, and Woody Harrelson at the swanky Bymark. Numerous other celebs either joined the Coens or dropped in to wish them well, including: Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Eddie Vedder, Clive Owen, and Emily Mortimer, many of whom joined Penn outside the restaurant for a smoke break, causing one fellow attendee to comment upon the sight of seeing so many big names clustered together, “What is this, a Vanity Fair Oscar party?” The film is so good that such a quip may just bode well for the directing duo. [Eugene Hernandez]

[James Israel contributed to this article.]

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