Miramax nabs 'Zatoichi,' Newmarket inks 'Monster'

TORONTO -- Business has begun in earnest at the Toronto Film Festival with Miramax, Newmarket Films and Sony Pictures Classics chalking up early buys Sunday.

Miramax Films has acquired rights for U.S., Australia and Latin America to Japanese maverick Takeshi Kitano's samurai saga "Zatoichi," which won the Silver Lion for director and the audience award for film in Venice; Newmarket has picked up U.S. theatrical rights to Charlize Theron starrer "Monster," which is still in post and has been shown to buyers privately over the last month; and SPC has North American rights to director Ferzan Ozpetek's Italian box office hit "Facing Window."

The fest has yet to unspool that single pic which galvanizes the industry and media as "American Beauty" did a few years ago, but some new names are being pursued, even if their films are not the subject of million-dollar bidding wars.

Miramax's seven-figure deal, brewing since the Venice fest, beat offers from other U.S. companies. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein sat down on the Lido to negotiate one-on-one with Hengameh Panahi, president of Paris-based sales company Celluloid Dreams, which handles Kitano's films.

The Miramax deal marks the second Kitano sale to the U.S. this year for Celluloid Dreams, which closed a deal in Cannes with Palm Pictures for the director's previous feature, "Dolls," three intertwined stories of absolute love, punctuated by interludes of traditional Bunraku puppet theater.

In "Zatoichi," Kitano plays the title character of a blind traveling masseur and gambler with lethal sword skills. A much-loved Japanese pop-culture icon, the swordsman was featured in a long-running series of TV and film installments that ended almost 20 years ago.

The character has been reinvented by Kitano to take on a clan of gangsters fronted by a formidable young samurai ronin.

Pic 'breaks new ground'

"Takeshi Kitano is a master," said Weinstein. "And for me, this movie breaks new ground as well as unloads a wealth of cinematic memories from my movie-going past. I'm thrilled to be in business with Celluloid Dreams."

"Zatoichi" is a co-production of Bandai Visual, Tokyo FM, Dentsu, TV Asahi, Saito Entertainment and the director's Office Kitano stable. Masayuki Mori and Tsunehisa Saito produced.

Miramax previously released Kitano's "Sonatine" under the Rolling Thunder label presented by Quentin Tarantino.Agnes Mentre, executive VP of acquisitions and co-production, and David Miercort, senior VP of acquisitions and business affairs, brokered the agreement on behalf of Miramax in Toronto, with Panahi negotiating on behalf of Celluloid Dreams and Office Kitano.

"Monster" to Newmarket

"Monster," written and directed by Patty Jenkins, tells the true story of prostitute Aileen Wuornos, who killed many of her clients in the 1980s and ended up on death row in Florida.

Theron plays the title role and is also a producer. "Monster" co-stars Christina Ricci, as Wuornos' girlfriend, and Bruce Dern.

Newmarket plans to open the pic in limited release in December for Academy Awards consideration and wider in January.

"We're focusing on Charlize's performance, and Patty has captured the story in a way that is very human," says Newmarket Films prexy Bob Berney. "It's part quirky love story and part biopic. It's a shocking and strangely moving film."

DEJ Prods. acquired all other North American rights and participates with Newmarket on the U.S. theatrical release of the film. A theatrical Canadian deal has yet to be made.

International sales company MDP has other distribution deals in place for territories including Japan (Asmik Ace), Spain (Filmax) and Scandinavia (Scanbox).

The U.S. deal was negotiated for MDP by David Garber of Lantern Lane and attorney Greg Bernstein, and for Newmarket by the company's William Tyrer, Chris Ball, Robert Fyvolent and Berney.

"Facing Window," the contempo drama about a young couple whose lives are changed by their encounter with an elderly amnesiac, is Celluloid Dreams' second sale. Pic was the major winner at Italy's David di Donatello awards in April.

Tilde Corsi and co-screenwriter Gianni Romoli produced for R&C Produzioni. The film screens in the Contemporary World Cinema section in Toronto.

"People in Europe keep saying that America is a tough market for foreign-language films," said Panahi. "But I think the market is becoming more open-minded. I'm selling some films more easily now in the States than in a lot of European territories."

SPC is planning a 2004 release.

Bid to sign Samuell

A signing frenzy is under way to reel in Franco helmer Yann Samuell, whose stylish romantic drama "Jeux d'enfants" (Love Me if You Dare) has agents scurrying to pick up Berlitz guides.

United Talent Agency, ICM, Endeavor and William Morris are among those who have met with Samuell, whose movie was acquired for distribbing by Par Classics last week after screening at Telluride.

Another film with distribution, IFC's "Touching the Void," had talent agents sidling up to Oscar-winning Brit docu helmer Kevin MacDonald to coax him into signing with American reps. The compelling docudrama about a 1985 climbing disaster in the Andes has had audiences rapt at screenings. MacDonald shot to prominence after helming "One Day in September" about the murder of the Israeli Olympic squad at the 1972 Games.

Meanwhile, two films that are available for acquisition are stirring up spirited conversations festival-wide:

"Stander," a film by Bronwen Hughes, is based on the true tale of Andre Stander, a privileged South African Boer whose pangs of conscience at killing an unarmed Bantu tribesman in a riot sent him on the largest bank-robbing crime spree in the history of the nation. Buyers and agents proclaimed lead thesp Thomas Jane a major star on the rise.

Interest in 'Eyes'

Also generating interest is "Rhinoceros Eyes" from helmer Aaron Woodley, who will quickly escape the designation as David Cronenberg's nephew if his first film is any indication. French-Canadian helmer Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions" elicited one of the most enthusiastic opening-night reactions in years on Thursday. But the first 24 hours of the festival belonged to Canuck rocker-turned-filmmaker Neil Young, who played the Air Canada Centre Thursday night with the stage show of "Greendale" --- his latest directing effort of the same name, which has had mixed critical reaction.

Finally, while there was much talk about Toronto having more of an Oscar focus at the fest owing to this year's early Academy Award date, no film has emerged as anything remotely resembling a prime Oscar contender.

Reaction to Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men" was muted and MGM's gala premiere of the Denzel Washington starrer "Out of Time" was still to unspool Sunday evening at press time.

(Sharon Swart and David Rooney in Toronto contributed to this report.)

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