Foreign sales companies use event to tap aud reaction, schmooze non-U.S. buyers

Movie-loving crowds, a clean, dynamic city and the industry-friendly fest bureaucracy — for Europeans, Toronto as an industry meeting hub is now reckoned to be on a par with Berlin and Cannes.

“Toronto has been an unofficial market for some time,” observes Noah Cowan, TIFF’s co-director. “But there’s been an interesting transformation over the last few years. Increasingly, European sales agents with European films are coming here without really much intention of selling their film to the U.S. market. They’re here to showcase their films for Asian, Latin American and Middle East buyers.”

Cowan notes that Euro sales agents are still using Toronto “as an audience-driven festival, but sort of to prove the commercial viability of European films shoulder to shoulder with North American movies.

“It’s a curious switch but it’s been quite effective, especially for some of the French sellers who really aggressively promoted their films here without much care for the U.S. market,” Cowan says.

Dirk Schuerhoff, topper at Teutonic sales agent Beta Cinema, agrees that’s the case. In the last two years, Beta has had Gala Screenings of “Downfall” and “The White Masai,” and this year is taking three films to Toronto: hot ticket “The Lives of Others,” “Four Minutes,” and “Winter Journey,” which have all been seen at other markets and events but will get a new showcase in Toronto.

“You have a lot of buyers there, and this gives them an opportunity to watch a film with a real paying audience, which you don’t have in Cannes or Berlin. It’s a big advantage, letting them see how the public reacts to a film,” notes Schuerhoff. “We’re focusing on trying to make deals with buyers from all over the world. Very often a big North American distributor will pick up a film the day after all the other distributors from the rest of the world have signed it, which for most of the other buyers is a very good sign.”

Many see the balance that TIFF strikes between emphasis on films and the efficiency of the festival’s organization as key to its success.

“That everything is in one place, more or less, is crucial,” says Gordon Spragg, head of marketing and publicity at Gallic sales agent Celluloid Dreams, which is taking some 10 films to TIFF this year, including Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain!” and Kenneth Branagh’s “The Magic Flute.”

“It’s a real city, so you have a sense of being somewhere exciting. There are just a whole lot of factors that make it easier to do business there, which marks a change from Cannes.”

Like others, Spragg appreciates Toronto’s reasonable prices compared with Cannes, but promoting and marketing a film is still an expensive business.

European Film Promotion’s Film Sales Support initiative offers up to 50% in grant coin to back the costs incurred by producers or sales agents for promoting and marketing of films at key international festivals, Toronto being the biggest of the lot, with a cap at E5,000 ($6,400) per film.

Renata Rose, EFP’s managing director explains: “After the festival we always ask how successful the recipients were, and we got very good results from last year. Almost 50% of those 49 films that were financially supported by the initiative were sold in Toronto, and not only to North American distributors.”

Didar Domehri, head of international sales at Films Distribution, says the initiative was very helpful to her company last year. This year, along with several other titles, she’s taking two of her films to Toronto that will have unspooled in Venice competition, “Falling” and “Private Property.” She hopes to “concretize in Toronto interests shown up in Venice.” Last year, the strategy worked spectacularly for “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” she says.

However, Domehri is aware that “it is always tough in terms of buyer’s attention to compete in Toronto with North American movies, unlike Cannes or Berlin. But the strong attendance allows us to meet buyers of very diverse profiles. So if the films raise interest we will be in position to close a deal with the appropriate distributor.”

Increasingly, Toronto has also become a magnet for international journalists seeking to secure interviews with not just big Hollywood stars but talent from films of their own territories. A Japanese journalist, for instance, is just as likely now to come to Toronto to interview filmmakers from a Japanese film premiering at the fest.

But it’s not so easy to get their attention for smaller films.

“Obviously, journalists are more interested in getting the big stars in their publications,” concedes Juliette Gill from Brit sales outfit the Works. “However, in commercial terms, if you have a strong film like ‘This Is England’ (the new Shane Meadows film the company is premiering at TIFF), then it is possible to get the buyers’ and journalists’ attention. Toronto also has one of the best audiences, and they are very receptive to indie films. If a film is good then the audience buzz can really help sell a film (to a buyer).”

That festival atmosphere is a crucial quality the TIFF organizers don’t want to see changed.

“The one thing we don’t want to become is a formal market the way Cannes and Berlin are,” says Cowan. “We believe that with 250 feature films and 120 or so world premieres is more than enough for buyers to focus on. So the idea of off-site screenings and people hocking exploitation movies in downtown multiplexes — we’re not interested in that.”

Cowan underscores why international buyers and sellers love Toronto: “Nor do we want our seller friends, who are quite interesting people, to be cooped up in hotel suites all day. They should actually get out there, see some of these movies and do their work in a more relaxed environment. This is North America, and there’s a certain informality about how business takes place here, which I think is very useful.”

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