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Toronto 2015: The Year of ‘Let’s Not Make A Deal’

The market for the 2015 Toronto Film Festival has been a slow, cold trudge. The rainy nights that swept through Canada last weekend provided a perfect metaphor for buyers’ state of mind.

Just look at this year’s opening night feature, Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.” After premiering to strong reviews on Thursday evening, the political documentary received interest from a smattering of buyers, but as of Wednesday, a deal still hasn’t been reached. Sources say that WME, the agency selling the title, was hoping to play Netflix against other distributors to drive up bidding. But Netflix was lukewarm on “Invade,” and Moore wants his movie to receive a large theatrical release, creating a potential stumbling block for a company that is interested in bolstering its streaming offerings.

“I’m trying to figure out the best place now,” Moore told Variety earlier this week at (ironically) the Netflix party. “This movie has to play in theaters with 100 other people watching.”

Following big sales at this year’s Sundance and Cannes, the theme for Toronto 2015 is “Let’s Not Make a Deal.” The word on the street describing this year’s festival has been sour, and descriptions like “weird,” “bad” and “slow” have been heard. Buyers are griping that the movies that don’t yet have distribution are very weak, and they don’t want to be manipulated by agencies into overpaying for films that tank at the box office.

“Have you seen the films?” said one studio executive when asked why checks weren’t being written. Another prominent buyer described the titles as average at best.

Meanwhile, producers, wary of the lessons of Sundance’s “Dope” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which sold for hefty fees that they had trouble recouping, are cautious too. They’re not necessarily jumping at the first offer they receive, but meticulously weighing their options. Sources tell Variety that there are offers on a handful of projects, including Ellen Page’s “Into the Forest” (which was being screened to new buyers this morning), first person POV action film “Hardcore,” and the sci-fi drama “Equals,” but none of these deals have been finalized. “Amazing Grace,” which held a private screening for buyers over the weekend, is entangled in a lawsuit from Aretha Franklin that has derailed sales plans.

The festival also suffered from the absence of a major buyer in Relativity Media. Ryan Kavanaugh’s studio could reliably be counted on to pick up at least one major film out of Toronto, snagging the likes of “Oculus” and “Black and White” in prior years. Its bankruptcy meant that sales agents were down a bidder, complicating efforts to play buyers off of each other. And the Weinstein Company, which pulled out all the stops to land “Begin Again” two years ago, was quiet, preferring to spend money scooping up television projects like “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ “Doctor Thorne” and U.S. rights to the Icelandic TV drama series “Trapped.”

Not all news out of Toronto has been bad. The festival, which is traditionally a launching pad for the Oscar race, has been churning out its share of Academy Awards hopefuls — any one of which would have sparked heated bidding had they not all arrived with distributors in tow. Bleecker Street debuted what could be Bryan Cranston’s first Oscar-nominated performance in “Trumbo.” Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” wowed with a strong ensemble, including Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams, that will appeal to actors come awards-season voting. “Black Mass” planted Johnny Depp in the lead actor race for the first time since 2007’s “Sweeney Todd.” Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander cemented their Oscar-contender status with Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl.” And Lenny Abrahanson’s “Room,” starring Brie Larson and 8-year-old newcomer Jacob Tremblay, received a rapturous standing ovation on Tuesday night.

But on the buying side, there are further complications with even the deepest pocketed bidders. Netflix and Amazon Studios, the new players in the field, have the money to provide big paydays, but they don’t offer a theatrical component on every offer they make. If a theatrical release is important to a director, the haggling over the fine print results in an even more prolonged process than usual. Other filmmakers aren’t necessarily in a hurry to sell their movies, especially if they’ve got multiple offers. It took days for the team behind “Anomalisa,” the stop-motion project directed by Charlie Kaufman that won the Venice grand jury prize, to close a deal with Paramount Pictures, one of the few sales to emerge so far from Toronto. And Bleecker Street bought “Eye in The Sky,” a political thriller starring Helen Mirren.

Sometimes it helps to show up without a completed film. Some of the biggest sales were for films that were still in production or hadn’t started shooting. Biopic “Florence Foster Jenkins,” headlined by Meryl Streep, sold to Paramount Pictures for $10 million; and EuropaCorp bought world rights on the Jessica Chastain gun-control drama “Miss Sloane.” But these offers aren’t as big or splashy as the $12.5 million plus a heft marketing commitment that “Top Five” pulled in at last year’s Toronto.

As the festival winds down, it looks like winter and summer’s buying sprees have now finally caught up with the market. More deals will continue to trickle through in the days ahead, but suddenly the moral of Hollywood’s film-festival market is: buyer beware.

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