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Why the Toronto Film Festival Felt Smaller Than Ever

For evidence that climate change is real, look no further than the Toronto International Film Festival. The official fall kickoff to awards season is usually accompanied by hot sales that burn through the streets of Canada’s largest city. In 2017, the market wasn’t just frosty. It was more like an arctic blizzard had suddenly swept through Roy Thomson Hall.

This year’s Toronto saw the premieres of a staggering 255 features, with endless red carpets and after-parties in crowded bars and noisy restaurants. Despite all the glamour emitted by the likes of George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Lawrence, the festival felt much smaller.

Many buyers here bitterly complained that there was nothing worth spending money on, while too many movies unfurled to little fanfare. This has become a recurring trend in the last three or four years at Toronto (does anybody remember the sad fate of the Michael Moore documentary “Where to Invade Next”?), but the situation is growing more dire. In general, independent film is a tough business that grows tougher by the day, as box office receipts shrink and prestige sizzle migrates to television. With the exceptions of “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Eye in the Sky,” most of the films that have picked up distribution in Canada have collapsed at the box office. The list of financial losers includes “Hardcore Henry,” “Miss Sloane,” and “Begin Again.”

In this market, there’s been purse tightening by the traditional players such as The Weinstein Company, Focus Features, and Fox Searchlight. But there was something about this year’s Toronto that wasn’t just dreary. It seemed like the end of an era. Or, at least a dramatic illustration of how fundamentally the business of independent movies has been upended. Part of the shift in the industry is the result of the arrival of deep-pocked players like Netflix and Amazon Studios. After dominating Sundance, neither of the streaming giants made a wallet-busting deal at Toronto, but their presence could be felt like Jaws, casting a shadow over the rest of the (smaller) fish in the sea.

Let’s take the most notable deal at this year’s Toronto. “I, Tonya” premiered to strong reviews for Margot Robbie as the ’90s Olympic figure skater, but that didn’t make its sale any easier. Forget about all-night bidding. The producers decided not to go with an offer from Netflix, because they wanted their film to play on the big screen. Yet they couldn’t drive up the offers from traditional theatrical distributors high enough. CBS Films, which had agreed to pay $6 million sight unseen for the movie, reduced its offer to $2 million after attending the premiere, according to knowledgeable sources.

In the end, Neon and 30West bought the film for $5 million, giving the newbie distributors a higher profile after they locked up one of the buzzier titles looking for a home. But it wasn’t all champagne popping for the film’s producers. Consider this: “I, Tonya” lost $1 million by entering the Toronto market instead of locking in an earlier deal.

Part of the issue is that Netflix and Amazon have ratcheted up prices so intensely (shelling out eight figures for the likes of “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Big Sick,” and “Mudbound”) that it’s forced more traditional indie distributors to rethink their business strategy. Fox Searchlight, having been burned by its splashy deals for “Patti Cake$” and “The Birth of a Nation,” is stepping back from the acquisitions game. The studio is doubling the number of films it produces in-house. All three of the movies it screened in Toronto — “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and “Battle of the Sexes” — were developed by Searchlight, instead of purchased at a festival. Those trio of titles received some of the festival’s best reviews, giving credence to the company’s new approach.

Other players, such as Bleecker Street and CBS Films, have been more active in snapping up  films that arrive with directors and cast attached, but not a frame of footage. They believe that it allows them to exert more control over the finished product. That means that many of the movies that are left looking for distribution after filming has wrapped are of more dubious appeal.

The lack of a big-ticket sale isn’t just a question of quality. “Hostiles,” a Western with Christian Bale, has elicited interest from buyers and solid reviews, but it cost more than $40 million to make. The deal its backers are looking for is said to be too rich for many studios.

Competition for product means that many of the best-reviewed titles had come here with distribution. Yet the biggest revelations — such as Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” — had already premiered in Telluride, which has sucked the wind out of Toronto’s sails. A festival built on discoveries is now playing host to the already discovered. Four years ago, Telluride still wasn’t as much of a draw for journalists and Oscar bloggers, which is why Toronto was able to act as the launching pad for “12 Years a Slave” (despite the film screening at Telluride first). Now Toronto has lost its hold as the No. 1 spot on the long and winding awards trail. It’s more like the Nevada caucus, instead of a New Hampshire king-making primary.

Making matter worse, this year’s edition of Toronto felt out of sync in general. Movies started 30 to 45 minutes late, because of long lines as a result of heightened security measures. That caused a domino effect, where people couldn’t leave theaters on time and other screenings had to be pushed back or start with a less-than-packed house.

At a screening of “The Shape of Water” this week, which was 25 minutes late at the Elgin Theatre, the ushers made the inexplicable decision of bringing in a long parade of stand-by patrons, without a clear place for them to sit. For the next 20 minutes, after the movie had started, there were crowds of stray people shuffling up and down the aisles, accompanied by flashlight-toting chaperones. Were these lost extras from the monster movie?

To be fair to Toronto, this is an unusual awards season without a clear frontrunner yet on the scale of “La La Land” or “Moonlight,” but some movies still benefited from the buzz. Francis McDormand drew raves for her turn as a vengeful mother in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”; Gary Oldman solidified his best actor frontrunner status with “Darkest Hour”; and Netflix received a standing ovation for Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” which could be the streaming service’s first film to be nominated for best picture. It also got high marks for the Lady Gaga documentary, “Gaga: Five Foot Two.”

Before the film screened, Gaga took the stage to belt out an acoustic version of “Bad Romance,” which became one of the most electric moments of this year’s festival. You couldn’t see that in Telluride or Venice. But the fact that Toronto needed Gaga, a pop star, for relevance means it’s strange times for the movies indeed.

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