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Toronto Market Faces Challenges from Platforms, Global Politics

Sellers at this week’s Toronto Film Festival hope to ride the wave of Cannes and Sundance, which saw a healthy number of deals close earlier in the year. But by no means does that suggest that the movie business is in full recovery.

“The market is bigger than ever,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. “But I think the huge sales are fewer and farther between than they used to be. Films used to go for more money in the DVD heyday. What we’re all doing is finding ways to make up for the loss.”

The shakeup in home entertainment is a challenge facing film backers, but the tectonic political shifts roiling the world are also wreaking havoc on an industry that relies on foreign distribution sales. Relations between the U.S. and Russia are chilly, due to the annexation of Crimea, which has left film buyers fretting that Russia may put in place a quota on foreign films. The rise of Isis has disrupted large swaths of the Middle East. Italy and Greece are still struggling to emerge from the financial crisis. That’s put pressure on emerging markets such as China and Latin America to pick up the slack.

“It’s a difficult time globally, and that impacts the business,” says Lisa Wilson, co-founder and partner of the international sales company the Solution Entertainment Group. “Fortunately for our business, when times are hard, people go to the movies to escape.”

Some are taking films to Toronto to sell distribution rights, others to build word-of-mouth as the awards season begins to heat up. Sony Pictures Classics is bringing more titles than ever before — nine — including “Foxcatcher,” which began earning buzz at Cannes as a top Oscar contender;  Mike Leigh’s latest drama, “Mr. Turner”; the Argentine comedy “Wild Tales”; and documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” about science pundits with an agenda.

Among other potential awards competitors unspooling at the festival are crime thriller “Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal; comedy “St. Vincent,” headlined by Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy; and legal drama “The Judge,” with Robert Downey Jr., which opens the fest Sept. 4. Two other likely Oscar entries are biopics: the Weinstein Co.’s “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, and Focus Features’ “The Theory of Everything,” with Eddie Redmayne as physicist Stephen Hawking.

There are also dozens of high-profile titles up for sale, including Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” starring Ben Stiller; Chris Rock’s comedy “Top Five”; Chris Evans’ directorial debut “Before We Go”; and “Cake,” which is already being touted as featuring a breakthrough performance from Jennifer Aniston. “There’s so much product, buyers haven’t targeted just one or two titles,” says Jessica Lacy, the head of international and independent film at ICM Partners.

Most industry insiders are skeptical that any single deal will top the $7 million that the Weinstein Co. shelled out last year for “Begin Again.” But even with smaller pricetags, Toronto has become an essential stop for producers, indie labels and financiers playing let’s make a deal. “It’s a great place to show movies, talk about movies and sell movies,” says Nick Meyer, CEO of Sierra/Affinity. “It’s a festival in a real city where real filmgoers see movies.”

With DVDs sales lagging, the proliferation of VOD has injected fresh energy into the market as distributors like A24 and Radius-TWC vie for titles ideal for that platform. The success of this summer’s “Snowpiercer,” which grossed more than $6 million on VOD, could prompt buyers to scoop up more titles that don’t require excessive P&A costs. “Not every film needs a theatrical release,” says Harrison Kordestani, president of Main St. Films. “We can’t forget it’s a business after all, and the theatrical window is such a vanity, particularly when there are so many other ways for a movie to be seen and enjoyed.”

Toronto is one of the world’s larger film festivals, with more than 300 movies playing. But between screenings, potential buyers make time to attend dog-and-pony shows for movies that haven’t even started shooting. “With more distributors popping up, you’re seeing people invest in projects early on,” says Rena Ronson, head of UTA’s independent film group. “It’s difficult to go to a festival with 20 films, expecting to sell them all at once.”

Entertainment One Films Intl. is taking advantage of “Breaking Bad’s” Emmys momentum by bringing Bryan Cranston along with director Jay Roach to Toronto to sell distribution rights to “Trumbo,” a biopic about blacklisted Oscar-winning screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo, which is set to shoot in Louisiana. Cranston and Roach will wine and dine potential buyers. “More and more, we’re doing that with talent, because it helps us stand out,” says Harold van Lier, the company’s president. “It shows distributors that they’re not just dealing with the middle man — that the talent will be there throughout the process supporting the film.”

That’s key when it comes to closing a deal. Distributors still want star power, which Toronto offers to a greater degree than Telluride or Sundance. “There are a lot of films that may be great, but if they’re coming out with people who mean nothing to audiences in Wisconsin, they always fail,” says Wendy Rutland, president of film and TV investment at Da Vinci Media Ventures. “You have to have films with a real cast that are going to work in Middle America.”

If it works in Toronto, that’s usually a good start.

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