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Weinstein Bid for Knightley Film Likened to Sparta Battle

'Can a Song Save Your Life?'
Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley as Dan, a record producer and Greta, a musician, in "Can a Song Save Your Life?" The film was written and directed by John Carney. Photographer: Andrew Schwartz/TIFF via Bloomberg

The lights hadn’t even come up at the world premiere of “Can a Song Save Your Life?” when Marc Schipper’s BlackBerry began buzzing with messages from distributors clamoring for rights.

The drama, starring Keira Knightley playing a singer trying to make it in the music business, had been flagged by publicists and organizers at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as one of the hottest titles for sale. It didn’t disappoint.

“Even before the credits were rolling, we had a bunch of offers in, people saying, ‘Don’t go to anyone else because we really want this movie,’ ” Schipper, chief operating officer of Exclusive Media Group and the negotiator for the film’s producers, said in a Sept. 10 telephone interview.

After an all-night bidding war, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s namesake company bought the U.S. distribution rights for $7 million. Organizers say the deal was one of the biggest in the festival’s 38-year history and highlighted Toronto’s place as one of the world’s leading film markets.

Perhaps the greatest battle played out at downtown restaurant Patria on Sept. 7. As Knightley, co-stars Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and director John Carney (“Once”) held court on a narrow patio, representatives from The Weinstein Co., Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. and Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. pressed through the party’s 250 guests to make their pitch, according to Tobin Armbrust, one of the film’s producers.

Band of Spartans

He likened the scene at the restaurant to a battle depicted in the 2006 movie “300” in which the Persians struggled to surge through a gap in the mountains defended by a small band of Spartans.

“It was literally like the buyers trying to make it through the pass to get to the talent,” Armbrust said by phone on Sept. 10.

With more than 360 films in the festival this year, including 146 world premieres, Toronto gives buyers ample selection from around the world.

“More and more we are becoming a crucial part of the plan for films to sell,” Cameron Bailey, the festival’s artistic director, said in an interview at the organization’s glass-and-steel headquarters in Toronto. “We are seen as a kind of content bonanza.”

International Circuit

That bonanza sparked a flurry of commerce in the festival’s opening days. Among the deals, Focus Features International spent about $7 million to get the worldwide distribution rights for the Jason Bateman comedy “Bad Words,” according to Variety. And the trade publication reported Millennium Entertainment spent about $3 million for U.S. rights to the John Turturro-directed “Fading Gigolo,” which features Woody Allen as a bookstore owner who becomes a pimp.

The Cannes film festival in May still hosts the biggest industry event on the international festival circuit. In addition to giving out the prestigious Palme d’Or prize, Cannes includes the sprawling Marche du Film, a trade show spanning multiple hotels. This year, the Marche attracted 11,700 participants, according to the festival’s website.

Industry attendance at TIFF was about 4,500 as of yesterday, up 30 percent since 2009, according to Justin Cutler, who heads the industry office. Attendance at Cannes’ Marche du Film has grown 19 percent in the same period.

‘Impeccable’ Organization

The number of buyers in attendance is closer, with TIFF attracting about 1,600 this year, according to Cutler, compared with the 1,918 people Cannes cites on its website.

The TIFF organization is impeccable and it’s getting better every year, Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said yesterday by phone from Toronto.

“When we first started coming here there were very few international sellers and buyers and they would only go to Cannes,” said Barker, who has been coming to the Toronto event since 1981. “But they all come here now, and it grows every year.”

TIFF has eclipsed Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival and the 70-year-old Venice event to become the premier fall festival, according to Alison Thompson, a Focus Features co-president.

“Venice, as a festival, it’s on the decline and that is partly to do with the extraordinary success of Toronto,” Thompson told the audience at a TIFF Industry event Sept. 7. The festival also helps kick off the movie-awards season, she said.

Mightily Dysfunctional

Distributors sometimes offer an Oscar campaign as part of their bid for rights to a film, TIFF’s Bailey said.

Movies at TIFF this year that may show up on award lists include “August: Osage County,” an adaptation of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer-winning play about a mightily dysfunctional Midwest family that stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts; and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” a visceral take on the story of a free U.S. black man in the 1800s abducted and sold into slavery, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt.

“I think it’s implied by having the Weinstein Company release your film that they’re going to make a run at some of the awards,” Armbrust said in the interview.

Still, that wasn’t the most important factor when the producers were looking to sell the rights to “Can a Song Save Your Life?”

“All of that is great, but it’s like if you’re writing a song,” Armbrust said, “you want someone to hear that song.”

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