Steve Bersch leads the formidable Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions team, which has made its mark on numerous indie hits in recent years. He tells Screen what they will be looking for at Toronto.

Many of the independently made US hits of the last several years, including District 9, Insidious, Hanna and Soul Surfer, bear the hallmark of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions (SPWA). The unit has earned a reputation as a shrewd operator and is now well positioned to take advantage of the buoyant market.

SPWA is tasked with picking up a wide range of genres at varying budgets for the Sony pipeline: be it Sony Pictures, Sony Classics, Screen Gems or TriStar. It also has distribution relationships with, among others, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Strand Releasing and FilmDistrict, the new distributor led by SPWA president Steve Bersch’s predecessor Peter Schlessel that has close ties to Sony and collaborated to great effect with SPWA on its first two releases, Insidious and Soul Surfer.

Given that Paramount and Warner Bros have recently exited the international acquisitions arena, SPWA’s standing as a nimble buyer with its pulse on the market has only served to boost its value to the studio. “Sony has a full roster domestically and internationally,” says Bersch, a former entertainment attorney who arrived at the unit in 2008 and has held senior executive positions at five US majors. “Our job is to supplement it on pictures that make sense.

“We are in very close communication with the studio. We go to festivals with the authority to conclude deals at a certain level and we can always arrange for something to be screened by movie management the next day.”

The high-profile acquisition of Insidious at Toronto last year involved a level of commitment that meant Bersch and his team could move quickly without the need for protracted talks with the Los Angeles head office.

“We try from a domestic and international level to find product we believe in and we believe will work commercially and match it with the right distribution strategy. It’s often Sony. Recent titles like Hanna went through SPRI [and Focus Features domestically, in a separate deal]. Soul Surfer went through TriStar domestically, but in a marketing partnership with FilmDistrict.”

Attack The Block was released in late July through Screen Gems, with a gross heading towards $350,000, while SPWA’S roster of upcoming projects includes Hostel Part III, Quarantine 2: Terminal, Colombiana (through TriStar) and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (through Samuel Goldwyn).

“In terms of international acquisitions, we try to acquire a large territory footprint so we can bring the scope of a studio to a multi-territory strategy. In some cases that’s very attractive to certain people.”

The team closed several deals at Cannes, taking US rights on martial-arts film The Raid from Celluloid Nightmares and worldwide rights on SXSW premiere Detention from ICM. Since then, two SPWA buyers have left to pursue new opportunities: Scott Shooman to head acquisitions at CBS Films, and Lia Buman to lead the buying team at FilmDistrict.

The aggressive acquisition activity of resurgent older players and new companies means SPWA, Lionsgate, Summit, IFC, Roadside Attractions and others are competing with Relativity, The Weinstein Company, FilmDistrict, Miramax and Open Road. “So it’s still a seller’s market and looks likely to remain so for a while,” Bersch says.

This sets up a potential flurry of activity in Toronto where Bersch and his team will be available as always for business. The unit keeps a close eye on those international players in the business of producing globally appealing product: namely Pathé, StudioCanal, Kinology, EuropaCorp, Wild Bunch and CJ Entertainment.

“More important international business is being done in Toronto than before,” Bersch notes. “Its strength is as a domestic market for finished product. Because of its timing well ahead of Sundance and following the end of the summer, [Toronto] should continue to be a domestic sales market.”

Steve Bersch

Before joining SPWA in 2008, Bersch served as COO of Fox Home Entertainment.

He has held senior positions at Paramount, Warner Bros and MGM/UA.

Bersch started his career as an entertainment attorney at Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman before moving to Sidley Austin.

He is a member of the executive branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.