Fox Searchlight has acquired the Terrence Malick-directed The Tree of Life from Bill Pohlad’s River Road Entertainment. Though the film might be an awards season magnet with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn starring, the distributor is flush with those kinds of films already, and will release in 2011. At the Toronto International Film Festival, Searchlight will fete 127 Hours, Black Swan, Conviction and Never Let Me Go.

The Tree of Life was originally meant to be the prestige title to launch Apparition, which River Road principal Bill Pohlad financed with Bob Berney at the helm. All that changed after Berney exited abruptly on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival, and Pohlad laid off most of the staff in July. Rumors raced that he was showing the picture to other distributors in the past few weeks, and holding informal meetings at Telluride. It became clear on Tuesday that there was no way Apparition would be handling this pricey gem of a prestige movie, after Pohlad laid off almost all of the remaining staff.

Searchlight presidents Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley made the deal for domestic rights. Summit is already selling international territories.

Searchlight describes the film as the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950s chronicling the journey of an eldest son (played as an adult by Penn) from childhood to his disillusioned adult years, trying to reconcile the complicated relationship with his father. Pitt plays that father in his younger years.

The unanswered question is whether this essentially plants a headstone on Apparition. I’ve been told that’s not necessarily the case, but it seems clear that Pohlad was badly wounded by a Berney exit that caught him by surprise, and he might not have the fire to start again with somebody else, even while he has Tom Ortenberg staying on in a consulting role.

This is the latest in a flurry of fest deals that were closed at the start of the Toronto Fest, with Sony Pictures Classics acquiring the Paul Giamatti-Dustin Hoffman-starrer Barney’s Version, and Dave Matthews’ ATO acquiring the George Hickenlooper-directed Kevin Spacey-starrer Casino Jack.

Hey guys, I delayed my trip until Friday because the opening night premiere this evening is Score: A Hockey Musical, and I’m not crazy about hockey or musicals. Save some deals until I get there.