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Studios get heated over 'Smoking'


TORONTO - Film festival bidding wars can get heated, but distributors and others in the biz are shaking their heads at just how much smoke Thank You for Smoking has generated.

Jason Reitman's sharply funny adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel is about a charismatic, unapologetic tobacco lobbyist, played by Aaron Eckhart with rakish charm. The high-powered cast - for an indie movie, at least - also includes Robert Duvall, Katie Holmes, William H. Macy and Maria Bello.

Several distributors showed interest in acquiring the film, but the final showdown pitted Paramount Classics against Fox Searchlight.

Now both claim they own it.

Paramount Classics thought it had landed Thank You for Smoking first. Its executives were in talks with the film's first-time producer, David O. Sacks, plus a top-ranking William Morris agent and lawyer late into Saturday night. As Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale tells it, the company walked away with a distribution deal costing somewhere north of $6 million - although this deal was formalized by a handshake.

Fast-forward to Sunday morning, and Fox Searchlight was claiming that it had sealed the deal for Thank You for Smoking. The company quickly issued a news release trumpeting this acquisition, which did include signatures on paper.

The Paramount Classics folks shot back by telling everyone that it owned the film, press release or no press release. "We had a deal five hours before they did," Vitale said. "It's going to end in a big ugly lawsuit because we own the movie."

Fox Searchlight wasn't backing down.

"We did exactly what we would do at any festival in acquiring a film," said Breena Camden, Fox Searchlight's executive vice president for publicity and promotion. "We were very interested in the film. We went into negotiations on the film. We signed a deal with the filmmakers. We think we're distributing the film. The filmmakers think we're distributing the film. We're really excited about it, and that's the end of the story."

Sacks said he's a lawyer who knows when a deal's a deal, and his deal is with Fox Searchlight.

"We never had a deal with Paramount Classics," he said. "There was never a deal concluded. In my mind there's absolutely no doubt that Fox Searchlight is the distributor of the picture."

Then how had Sacks left things with Paramount Classics that night? He wouldn't get more specific than to say: "We had negotiations, basically. That's what we had. Until those negotiations result in a closed deal, that's all they are."

Industry officials say these deals are often hammered out more informally than your average contract, which goes through multiple drafts and is vetted by lawyers galore. Sometimes the initial contract is simply a deal memo, with a few scrawled-down key points and some signatures.

Both sides continue to claim ownership of Thank You for Smoking. Meanwhile, the festival goes on.

On Monday night, Vitale was negotiating for another comedy that had just been screened, Bart Freundlich's Trust the Man, starring Julianne Moore and David Duchovny. By Tuesday afternoon a press release was being prepared to announce its acquisition - by Fox Searchlight.

"At least this time I lost it legitimately," Vitale sighed.

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