NEW YORK — Though dozens of movies will be seeking distribution when the Toronto International Film Festival opens Thursday, there's one that tops nearly every major buyer's must-see list: "The Place Beyond the Pines."
The movie stars Ryan Gosling as a motorcyclist who begins robbing banks to provide for his family, and Bradley Cooper as a hotshot cop on the biker's tail. It was written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who collaborated with Gosling on the 2010 critical darling "Blue Valentine."
" 'Place Beyond the Pines' is the movie that has many of us salivating," said Lia Buman, head of acquisitions for FilmDistrict, echoing the sentiment of several other acquisitions executives. "There are a lot of other films that think they have the goods. But most buyers believe ['Pines'] really has the goods."
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"Pines" producers are playing down expectations for its Toronto world premiere. Buzz is a tricky thing for an available film-festival title; you can be choked by too much just as easily as by too little.
But the pedigree of the dark drama — combined with the fact that even high-powered buyers have not been shown the film before the festival — has stoked anticipation for the movie's Friday evening debut. (The prospect of Gosling as a morally conflicted criminal with superior driving skills has also inevitably drawn comparisons to last year's "Drive.")
Other titles that buyers say they are eager to see include Mira Nair's post-9/11 ideological exploration "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"; the Kristen Wiig character comedy "Imogene"; and the Colin Firth-Emily Blunt romantic dramedy "Arthur Newman." In addition, Noah Baumbach's comedy "Frances Ha" and the Michael Shannon-starring crime film "The Iceman" hope to ride good buzz and reviews out of last week's Telluride Film Festival to a deal north of the border.
Among the larger established buyers, Fox Searchlight is perceived to have a comparatively smaller number of autumnal releases than in prior seasons and could well be active. The Weinstein Co. and Sony Pictures Classics, while both well-stocked for the fall, are typically hungry buyers even when their cupboards are full.
Meanwhile, smaller distributors such as IFC and Magnolia are expected to be active. The companies have bought numerous films at festivals thus far in 2012. Comparatively newer players such as Open Road and FilmDistrict are also thought to be in the market for films.
One question mark will be Lionsgate, whose current leaders bought "The Hurt Locker" at Toronto when they were at the helm of Summit Entertainment; the movie went on to win the Academy Award for best picture in 2010. But it's unclear how aggressive a now-combined Summit and Lionsgate will be on the acquisitions front.
Traditionally, Toronto is not a hot market in the manner of, say, the Sundance Film Festival. Unlike the Utah gathering, at which a dozen or more sales might take place in the space of a few days, Toronto acquisitions are more sporadic. Many of the high-profile films that screen in Toronto are studio productions that come into the festival with distribution in place.
But high-profile sales can still go down, and often for significant sums. Darren Aronofsky's 2008 critically acclaimed "The Wrestler," Lasse Hallstrom's sleeper comedy "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," James Wan's horror hit "Insidious" and Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking" all found buyers after their Toronto premieres.
Sellers appreciate Toronto because, unlike the Telluride and Venice festivals, which happen just before the Canadian gathering, nearly every major buyer is there. And audiences mirror those in major North American cities where films will eventually be released, giving a better sense of how the films will play to the general public.
"Toronto has a reputation for being enthusiastic, but they also have a lot of real, normal people," said Rich Klubeck, a sales agent at United Talent Agency, which is representing "Frances Ha" and five other films. "People don't know what a Sundance screening means. But they accept that Toronto is an accurate gauge."
A strong screening there doesn't always guarantee theatrical success, however. Two years ago, the Nicole Kidman drama "Rabbit Hole" played well at Toronto and landed a deal from Lionsgate. But the drama flopped when it was released three months later.
One wild card in Toronto will be "To the Wonder," Terrence Malick's follow-up to his 2012 best picture nominee "The Tree of Life." The love-triangle film starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko divided audiences at the Venice Film Festival a few days ago, and how it's received in Toronto could go a long way toward determining what kind of theatrical home it finds.