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Sell Shock

Raw deal: Acquisition disputes and pricey buys at Toronto film fest

 TORONTO—The Sundance-ification of the Toronto International Film Festival was cinched early on. When rival execs from Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics awoke on the festival's middle Sunday claiming possession of Thank You for Smoking, the Canadian fest began to take on the hothouse atmosphere of Park City. And like its 2005 winter counterpart, the 30th TIFF saw an unprecedented amount of cash exchange hands.

At the center of the Smoking dispute is whether a late-night handshake deal reported at $6.5 million between Paramount and the film's reps is binding. While some industry veterans say there are no rules in the acquisitions game, indie-sales guru John Sloss explains, "If someone had a handshake and said we have a deal, then I do think there is an obligation to work out the fine points." Not everyone agrees, least of all Searchlight staffers, who got a signed contract.

Though potentially humiliating for all parties, the spat won't necessarily tarnish anyone's reputation, says Sloss: "Certain people will respect the fact that they were out to get the best deal with the best distributor." But for some, the scandal proves how remote the business is from the art house sector. "The agencies play Hollywood-style," says Wellspring's Marie Therese Guirgis, referring to Smoking's sales agent William Morris Independent, "which is dirty."

Toronto this year also featured an increased number of screenings aimed specifically at buyers. "It felt like distributors were more available," says Sloss, who credits the increased business, in part, to Searchlight's absence from Sundance in January. "They were making up for missing a market," he says. Searchlight also purchased Bart Freundlich's rom-com Trust the Man for a reported $8 million, a princely sum considering that the director's last two indies made a total of $626,000. Other costly pictures included Michel Gondry's comedy-and-concert piece Dave Chappelle's Block Party and Training Day scribe David Ayer's high-testosterone L.A. story Harsh Times.

One movie still in distributors' sights is Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers. While Clark has yet to see his 2002 Ken Park released in the U.S., he is confident that Wassup will get into theaters."I wanted to make a film that was more accessible," he says. Clark also boasts a newfound business savvy: "The smart thing to do is let everyone see the film at the same time and get a bidding war. I came here to sell the film, as simple as that."

 
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