Midmarket at Toronto: Slow, but still time

Cautious, better-educated buyers keep things fairly quiet, but there's still time

This year’s Sundance and Cannes film fests may have both heated up quickly and aggressively on the acquisitions front. But Toronto, while brimming with product, has so far been on a slow simmer.

One only has to walk through the Hyatt and pop into sellers’ offices to notice that, despite being packed with industryites, the mood isn’t a frantic one.

“Buyers are making sure they see everything before putting their eggs all in one basket,” said one producer — a tricky proposition, given that a lot of films are scheduled at similar times. But Sunday is too early to judge how hot

Toronto will get — even last year’s sales avalanche didn’t gain full steam till the fest was in its home stretch.

President Obama’s recent jobs speech reminding everyone about economic uncertainty and U.S. debt-ceiling politics didn’t make bizzers any more confident.

“From a macro standpoint, I think everyone is scared and nervous about the lack of leadership in Washington — not just from Obama, but Congress and everyone else,” said Chris McGurk, CEO of digital cinema distrib Cinedigm and vet topper at MGM, Overture and Disney. “No one believes anyone has an answer, and that’s affecting the attitudes of people I’ve talked to up here.” (For the record, McGurk describes himself as an independent who voted for Obama, and his wife Jamie is an active Democratic fundraiser).

There have been deals: CBS Films’ bought domestic rights for Lasse Halstrom’s comedy “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” toplining Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor, marking the fest’s biggest deal at an estimated $4 million. Pic screened favorably on Saturday and was bought the next day, though even that turnaround time is tame compared to the late-night dealing of previous years.

“I see a few films here already that years ago someone would’ve snapped right up overnight,” McGurk said. “People’s attitudes about the lack of leadership in the economy is causing them to think two, three, four, five times before a deal is made.”

Millennium Films prexy Mark Gill, the WIP and Miramax vet who now produces wide release fare and advises his outfit’s specialty distrib arm on pickups, hasn’t seen the same level of alarm.

“The absurdity of it is that we should be most focused on macro-economic news, because it’s the rising tide that affects all of us. But I think almost everybody has already factored the mediocrity of the traditional Western economy for the next three to four years into their thinking,” he said with a wry laugh. “Anything that goes better will be a pleasant surprise. … I know there’s a lot of bidding going on for a variety of things — but it’s not 2003 anymore.”

It’s not even 2010, when TIFF sales were enhanced by an extraordinary set of factors: hunger for titles among newly launched distribs, a robust crop of films emerging after a post-strike drought, and open calendars among the studios that pared back buying after the economy took its 2008 dive.

Those factors made a slight downturn nearly inevitable, but there’s still plenty of commercial-friendly pics that could soon find good homes. Saturday night’s offerings included “The Oranges,” hockey comedy “Goon,” Woody Harrelson starrer “Rampart,” Sarah Polley’s “Take this Waltz” and Matthew Goode starrer “Burning Man.” “Friends with Kids,” toplining Megan Fox and Kristen Wiig, is still up for grabs while Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna” has slew of offers from U.S. buyers on the table. Sony’s “The Raid,” from Welsh helmer Gareth Evans, has also been a buzzed-about title, while low-budget horror “You’re Next” is likely to secure a deal before the end of the fest.

John Flock, CEO of sales-financier W2 Media, stressed that negotiations in the indie financing world have become far more difficult in recent years.

“It’s much more of a serious business than it used to be,” he told Variety. “You can’t just run projects up the flagpole and announce that you’re making them — and then not make them.”

In particular, Flock said, buyers have become more educated as the business becomes increasingly complex amid the decline of revenues from DVD. Phase 4 Films CEO Berry Meyerowitz said the economy is making distribs focus more on whether a film will work across all platforms (theatrical, DVD, VOD, pay TV, etc) or if it should just be purchased for one or a few of them.

“Everyone is sort of nervous about what the future will bear in this market — what’s going on with the banks, interest rates, jobs, etc.,” Meyerowitz said. “But people who are in this game are trying to look past that. Buyers are genuinely are taking into account the trepidation in the market and the economy, but overall, they’re aggressively negotiating for films, and we won’t see a meaningful decline in purchases.”

David Reckziegel, prexy of eOne Films North American, said buyers’ caution isn’t surprising.

“Everybody came away from Cannes with quite full shopping bags — with three or four movies,” he said. “It’s very rare that happens. So this year’s Toronto could be more like Sundance a year ago.”

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)