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TORONTO (Reuters) - This year's Toronto film festival lowers its final curtain this weekend after 10 days of red carpet premieres and industry networking that produced few movie deals but showcased some good bets for Oscars.
Executives, hoping for signs that the independent film industry might be ready to emerge from a nearly two-year funk, had little to celebrate. Barely a handful of distribution deals were announced during a festival that began with more than 100 titles available for acquisition.
"I anticipated a slow market, but I guess I was surprised. I thought there would be a few more deals closed by now," said Steven Beer, an entertainment lawyer with Greenberg Traurig.
Films like rock'n roll vampire flick "Suck" and the Woody Harrelson superhero movie "Defendor" were among the exceptions that found distributors to release them in theaters.
Overall, weak demand from recession-stung distributors has ended the traditional flurry of deal making at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"You'll see carnage from this film festival," David Garber, CEO of Lantern Lane Entertainment, told an industry round-table this week. "There are some very expensive movies there that are going to be wanting for distribution. And they'll make a deal that makes no real financial sense."
While summer season box office receipts crept up from last year, the independent film industry has been hit by plunging DVD sales and fewer sources of production funds.
There is also uncertainty over how digital downloads and movies-on-demand on television will impact future revenues.
These factors have forced film distributors to cut back on bigger budget movies and to be more picky in what they release.
"(This) is a permanent change," said Beer. "The cost of releasing films continues to escalate, so the risk factor is so considerable that the industry has become very conservative."
However, just as shoppers tend to look for cheaper products during a recession, the door is still open for low budget and art house films of the type that play at Toronto.
Industry players say high-priced actors are accepting lower pay, which may be benefiting smaller productions.
"I think one of the things at this festival was how many of the smaller films had bigger stars," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
He pointed to Rodrigo Garcia's relatively low-cost "Mother and Child," which stars Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Samuel L. Jackson.
"Defendor" managed to snag Woody Harrelson for a low-budget Canadian film helmed by first-time director Peter Stebbings.
Timed just before Hollywood's Oscar season, the Toronto festival has in the past given a push to small pictures like "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Wrestler," both of which went on to Oscar nominations and awards.
Early buzz this year has surrounded the Oprah Winfrey-backed "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," about a troubled teen growing up in Harlem.
"That's the movie most people have been wowed by in that 'Slumdog Millionaire' kind of way -- the movie that knocks your block off and leaves everybody buzzing," said Tom O'Neil, a veteran Oscar watcher who writes for TheEnvelope.com.
Also getting attention is Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," Robert Duvall for "Get Low" and George Clooney for acting turns in Reitman's film and in "The Men Who Stare At Goats."
A trio of little known actresses are earning buzz: Carey Mulligan in "An Education," Gabourey Sidibe for "Precious" and in a supporting role, Anna Kendrick for "Up in the Air."
Reporting by Cameron French; editing by Bob Tourtellotte