Why the Toronto Film Festival Felt Smaller Than Ever

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem Jennifer
Stacey Newman/REX/Shutterstock

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.”

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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.

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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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  1. Private Private 2 says:

    re: “small festival feel.” Shift your perception and you’ll do fine. Two hundred
    and fifty films is like too many choices when you just want to spend your
    money on something with a high return on investment. So what’s been
    in the national conversation in the last decade: #1, really bad
    affordable health care and #2. Make America Great Again.
    In the Three Christs of Ypsilanti we unveil the absence of
    active listening in our current culture (overly reliant on pills).
    We are reminded that as baby boomers, even those most
    fragile psyche finds solace in our national identity of “America
    The Beautiful.” So why is this film an “Oscar Contender Of
    the Millennium” — because so many of us want to see it!!!!!
    Put Julianna Marguilles and Richard Gere in life-size poster
    because we all still remember she and Richard were engaged
    in revealing bad-health care story lines in E.R. and Mr. Jones
    respectively that we’re all still compelled to endure under
    the auspices of academic medicine. I’ll bet we could save
    a few rain forests too, with this flick, instead of cutting them
    down to find insects to make pills out of. After all Rain
    Forests produces 20 percent of the earth’s Oxygen and
    Dr. Stone’s approach stops both crimes against humanity
    and evil animal research. There you have it, a peel-back-
    the-layers of an onion approach to trouble shooting the
    Oscar-worthiness of this story. I liked Singing In The Rain
    for decades because of the song. This film has a song we
    may all sing along with. “When Harry Met Sally” came out,
    they said sex always got in the way. What’s in the way here?
    It really is a a very BIG DEAL!

  2. stevenkovacs says:

    Blame the current management who turned TIFF into a glitzy, elitist, private party. They turned it into the ‘Las Vegas’ of Film Festivals, to the detriment of the traditional film-lover base that gave TIFF its reputation of finding and supporting independent film. NOT NOW!
    TIFF gleefully sells its opening night slots to the highest bidding studios (‘The Equalizer’? ‘Magnificent Seven’? EWW!) that TIFF founder Dusty Cohl would never have approved of. Independent & foreign films were overlooked unless they could afford the fee of a Gala opening slot.
    It’s come back to bite them on their collective ass as due to efforts of new media players like Netflix and Amazon, quality independent films can now be financed, developed and with a built-in forum to play without depending on traditional studio money or marketing such as at film festivals.
    There’s a much more low-key approach and sensibility to their business model, which has taking the gas out of a bloated Festival that TIFF has become.
    TIFF execs focused more on the private parties and celeb-fetes to ‘regular’ film lovers who began to to rely on kijiji and Craigslist to obtain tickets (what % of seats held for TIFF and its sponsors, 30-40%??) the long-waits in long lines due, in part, to poor scheduling and venue choice. They install ridiculous amounts of metal barriers as if Toronto film lovers are secretly part of a terrorist cell or something. Absolutely pathetic and showed the clear divide between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’.
    Time to let the gas out of this bloated affair and sweep out all the execs and management. An audit must be performed for at least the last 5 years of how and where the millions of dollars of member fees and sponsors ‘donations’ were spent. Would it reveal the high-flying lifestyle these TIFF execs seemed to enjoy?
    Get an independent contractor to take over the complete disaster ticketing system; have a bidding process! STOP selling Gala night slots and reward the smaller, quality films with those! STOP threatening demanding exclusivity from studios for Gala slots – what good can come from that??
    Get a few genuine film lovers in the management structure (nominate some long-time volunteers!) and give this Festival a reset that removes the cheesy, phoney ‘Vegas’ and elitist aura, and return it to what it USED to be known as, a people’s festival!

    • I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been attending TIFF regularly since 2004, and this year was the first year I didn’t attend. I needed a break from it. I’ve long believed that TIFF should showcase less than 200 films, make it more exclusive, and shorten the damn festival, shave off the second Sat/Sun, end it on Friday. I have been turned off my the elitist ticketing process, the 40-50% reserved VIP seats, the long lines, etc. It’s not the people’s festival anymore, it’s the sponsors/studios festival now.

    • James says:

      “Blame the current management who turned TIFF into a glitzy, elitist, private party. They turned it into the ‘Las Vegas’ of Film Festivals”

      Very well said.

  3. Cc says:

    I live in the Toronto area and go to TIFF most years. I’m not in the film industry; I just go for the opportunity to see interesting films I might not have the chance to see otherwise. I have to say that I have been disappointed with the selection this year. I particularly enjoy animated features and children’s films – I believe that there was only one children’s movie on the docket this year, and if there is any feature -length animation, I certainly couldn’t find it on the TIFF website. There also seem to be far fewer q & a screenings this year; I wasn’t able to get tickets to any, which is a great disappointment to me. I saw two films yesterday – and found them both visually pretty but profoundly dull. Here’s hoping that the three I have booked today will be better!

  4. N says:

    I actually think this year has some great movies, many of which are coming up ahead (Spielberg, PTA, etc.). La La Land and Moonlight were fine, but were EXTREMELY overhyped in what was a pretty weak year. The year prior — The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road — was incredible. Some years are just better than others. All that said, TIFF isn’t just about the Oscar race; it’s a festival that really prides itself on bringing audiences of film-lovers together.

  5. Toronto Says Va te faire enculer says:

    What a rubbish article. Film Festivals are about movies. Film goers could give a rats ass about acquisitions and/or the fact that Lady Bird premiered first in Telluride (I was at that Gerwig screening and it was a great success). In fact, dozens of films had their World launch at TIFF that got amazing reviews, not just I, Tonya; for example, Stronger, Molly’s Game, Breathe, Jane (Goodall), Jim & Andy-The Great Beyond, Thelma, The Upside, I Love You Daddy, Chappaquiddick, The Children Act, The Mountain Between Us, Who We Are Now, Kodachrome, A Worthy Companion, Disobedience, Brad’s Status, The Death of Stalin, Bodied, The Wife, The Ravenous, Revenge, The Cured, The China Hustle, Mom & Dad, Dark River, Hochelaga – Land of Souls, The Final Year, Beast, Youth, Outside In, The Escape, Papillon, On Chesil Beach, etc. In fact, I saw only one bad movie this year and that was Kings.

    Perhaps you both have forgotten that TIFF has been a festival for the people. And we in Toronto love movies, not the gobbledygook concerns of whiny buyers and snarky, self-important Variety writers who don’t review movies. Why do you even come here? Just stay home, please!

    Oh, and by the way, we are now in the midst of a heat-wave. It was 32 C today and is expected to remain at that temperature for the foreseeable 10 days. Now that’s global warming, idiots.

  6. Yukkei says:

    FYI Gaga performed Bad romance, not born this way before her documentary.

  7. Hank says:

    “For evidence that global warming exists, 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 “global warming” reference doesn’t make any sense, does it ?

    Mr. Ramin Setoodeh & Mr. Brent Lang should use their brains before they write ;-)

  8. ManOfBronze says:

    opinions are like as$holes

  9. Jim says:

    “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.””

    Yes, maybe, but “Hardcore Henry” was a huge letdown…it had an amazing concept and a few good scenes, but it was faaaar to long and the script needed more work. It could have been soooo great,
    but it was just an unpleasant experience.

    It shows again, that a ‘high concept’ – no matter how cool – doesn’t make a great film.
    They wasted a great opportunity & I hope someone will pick up and master the ‘Egoshooter Feature Film’ one day…

    And “Miss Sloane” was just feminist fluff.
    Who pays to get an ideology lesson ?

    Films with good stories still work, like “Eye in the Sky” and “Florence…” showed.
    It’s mostly about story.

    And “I,Tonya” sounds great – must see for me !

    • gkn says:

      Feminist fluff? “Miss Sloane” is considered the best film out in some time by everyone I know who’s actually seen it. It sure was marketed badly though. No one who saw the trailers could have guessed what it was actually about. Perhaps that’s your case. Either that or it went over your head.

      • Jim says:

        I actually didn’t see it.
        My opinion is based on the synopsis & the general characters Jessica Chastain plays.
        It’s always a similar type, it seems.
        Not my type.

  10. MovieBabble says:

    I feel like TIFF hasn’t lost it’s luster, it’s just that there’s more film festivals these days. Films have so many options as to where they can debut that’s it become somewhat watered down. I know I’ll continue to follow TIFF and see what films get a lot of buzz.

  11. Kajol says:

    “Were these lost extras from the monster movie?”
    Really, Variety?

  12. James W Thomason says:

    First, film is replaced by digital. Now it’s being supplanted by television. The glory days of movies are over. Glad I was alive when film was king because now all of it’s kids are fighting over the throne. King Lear anyone?

  13. michael christie says:

    I was at that screening of Shape of Water at the Elgin. Most of those people milling around after the film started were from the ticket holder’s line. They actually started the film before the regular paid audience entered the theatre, I know because I was among them and livid. In 28 years of going to TIFF I’ve never seen that before, it was inexcusable. I waited an hour in line for a film I had a ticket to, and it started before I got in. The main issue seemed to be that they were examining bags, another first. I guess you can blame the ratcheted up tensions in the world for that, I wonder who’s doing that?

    However, The Shape of Water was magical (likely better if i’d seen the whole thing). You’re deluded if you don’t realize it’s the clear frontrunner for the Oscars.

  14. David K says:

    times change…the Oscars are not what they used to be…throwing a bunch of films at the end of the year “for your consideration” is getting tired.

  15. Rachel la says:

    Mudbound and Call Me By Your Name are the clear front runners. Mudbound is a cinematic masterpiece. Would people be less hesitant to call it so if K Bigelow or Aronofsky had made it?

  16. There’s some accuracy within this piece however TIFF is not responsible for what filmmakers are making, they are simply selecting from what is being financed, produced and up for sale. And the final comment relating to Gaga, is ridiculous … Gaga is said to have turned in an amazing performance starring in the upcoming remake of A Star is Born…why wouldn’t TIFF focus upon her to elevate the excitement level at this years festival? Sounds sound to me.

  17. Kaboom! says:

    So I read the whole post and found nothing substantiating the claim “For evidence that global warming exists, look no further than the Toronto International Film Festival. ” That is because Variety has posted another lie.

    • AmandaSue2 says:

      Exactly! I kept waiting to read about how global warming was effecting the film industry…nothing! Who’s hired to write these articles?

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