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FilmDistrict’s Berney Talks 2011 Slate, Del Toro Pick-Up Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

FilmDistrict's Berney Talks 2011 Slate, Del Toro Pick-Up Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Miramax has been shopping its Disney holdovers to outside distributors. Focus acquired John Madden’s Israeli thriller The Debt, starring Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Sam Worthington. And FilmDistrict, capitalizing on distrib exec Bob Berney’s long relationship with Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), has acquired U.S. rights to his production, the horror film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Footage played well at July’s Comic Con; Del Toro had been worried about how the movie would be handled by Disney and then, new owner Miramax. He is worried no longer. “Miramax has done an inspired job finding the right home for our film that took 15 years to get made,” said Del Toro. “Partnering with Bob Berney is always an exciting privilege.” (The filmmaker talked to me in Toronto about producing the film, below.)

“It’s a great, unique and frightening movie,” says Berney, who is delighted to be working again with Del Toro and plans to attach the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark teaser trailer (below) to the company’s first release with Sony, James Wan’s Toronto Midnight horror hit Insidious, starring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne. FilmDistrict is marketing Sony’s female empowerment biopic Soul Surfer (April 8), whose trailer just debuted with Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark goes wide August 12, and Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and Cary Mulligan, goes out September 16.

In production is sci-fi thriller Lockout, starring Pearce and Maggie Grace, set for early 2012. Still to be officially slated are two Graham King shelf-titles, the Hunter S. Thompson film The Rum Diary starring very busy Johnny Depp, and William Monahan’s London Boulevard starring Colin Farrell. “We’re busy,” says Berney.

Industry observers had expected FilmDistrict to acquire more titles at Sundance. While Berney admired many of the films, especially Lionsgate acquisition Devil’s Double, which featured Dominic Cooper in a breakout role, nothing was “wide-release material,” he said. “It was great to cover it all and look at new filmmakers and actors.” FilmDistrict is checking out the plethora of pre-buy possibilities as a large number of projects assemble necessary backing and release commitments before heading into production.

Produced by Del Toro and Mark Johnson, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a terrifying 1973 TV movie of the same name that Del Toro chased down rights to and developed over many years, trying to hang on to freedom from studio interference. He co-wrote the script with Matthew Robbins and hired animator-turned-director Troy Nixey, who had sent him a short to see. The film stars Katie Holmes as a young woman who moves with her boyfriend (Guy Pearce) and his daughter (Bailee Madison) to restore a 19th century mansion which has a very nasty underground surprise.

Del Toro encourages artists to send him things to look at—shorts or art work—as opposed to scripts, which he often doesn’t read. At Comic-Con, he talked about the genre of horror mythology this story comes from, like changelings: this one features an ash pit in a dark basement full of nasty creatures who try to pull people down into their world. One startling image haunts me: a young girl crawls under a sheet to see what’s moving–and a hideous head pops into the frame. Scary.

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