In a major surprise, Fox Searchlight has acquired domestic rights to Terrence Malick's long in the works drama "Tree of Life." 

Starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the film was almost released last December and has had rumored debuts at Cannes and Venice this year only to remain sight unseen.  After Apparition, the distribution company that was expected to release "Life," began to shutter its operations over the summer it was clear producer Bill Pohlad was going to have to find the film another home.  Suitors were expected to include Summit Entertainment, Focus Features, Relativity Media or Lionsgate, but instead, Searchlight surprised the industry by placing the film on its 2011 release slate.

In a statement, Searchlight Presidents Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley said, "Terrence Malick has crafted a deeply moving, keenly observed and magisterial film.  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and the entire cast's performances are simply amazing.  This is a signature film by a signature filmmaker and we are proud to be releasing it."    

Pohlad added, "There is no better partner than Fox Searchlight to bring this film to audiences. Their ability to distribute and market independent films with a passion and creativity is incredibly rare in our industry.”

This move no doubt reassures Pitt, who is also a producer on the picture, that the marketing and publicity campaign will be in very good and Oscar-friendly hands. It also could potentially create yet another best picture contender for the Fox mini-major.

As the Toronto Film Festival commences today, Searchlight has four pictures screening: Darren Aronfsky's "Black Swan," Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go" and Tony Goldwyn's "Conviction."  The first three are expected to be seriously players in the best picture race, but never say never that "Life" won't join them.  There is more than enough time for Searchlight to open "Life" in a New York and Los Angeles qualifying run in December and the release wider after the New Year.  And for anyone who would question whether Searchlight could pull such a quick campaign off, this is the same company that acquired "The Wrestler" after Venice and Toronto in 2008 in time for a December release and made a last minute decision to open "Crazy Heart" in early November for a December in 2009.  Could "Life" make it a trifecta? 

In other news…

- Sony Classics made acquisition news of their own by taking claim to Richard J. Lewis' "Barney's Version," a dramedy that in in play at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals.  Based on Mordecai Richler's prize-winning comic novel, the film stars Paul Giamatti, Minni Driver, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Rachelle Lefevre and Scott Speedman.  No word yet from Sony Classics on when they intend to release the film, but like Searchlight, they have done quick turnaround before (most recently with "The Last Station" last year).  On a side note, "Twilight" fans will recognize "Barney's Version" as the picture that caused Rachelle Lefevre to lose her starring role in "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse."  Now, audiences will get to see if all that drama was worth it.

Look for continuing coverage from the Toronto Film Festival on HitFix and Awards Campaign.  Get the latest scoop and buzz from all the premiere screenings and buzz by following @HitFixGregory on Twitter.