As film production levels keep growing while all-rights distribution deals are harder to clinch, a selection in a festival like Toronto often determines the commercial potential of French and/or world cinema films that don’t fall into the mainstream.

“Film festivals have never been so economically relevant to sales agents and distributors alike because P&A budgets are increasingly polarized between Hollywood movies and arthouse films,” says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, co-founder of Films Distribution, which has 11 pics at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, including Jeremy Sims’ Australian hit drama “Last Cab to Darwin.”

Even in the ultra VOD distribution model, festivals allow pics to drum up buzz and get reviewed which is often a prerequisite.

For pre-sales, festivals like Toronto are also a big push: “The whole point of a pre-sale is to pay less money for a movie that will gain in value and traction once it’s completed,” said Brigaud-Robert.

Even in the still-emerging VOD distribution model, festivals allow pics to drum up buzz and get reviewed, which is often a prerequisite for legitimate acceptance in the marketplace.

With an average of 400 titles, the volume of movies at Toronto makes it more of a buyers’ market to be sure. Sellers have a tougher time. It’s one thing to be among a sea of titles available in Toronto’s deeply stocked bazaar of movie merchandise; it’s another to get a stamp of approval from festival curators.

“A competition slot gets you a foot in the door with buyers who will want to take the time to come see your movie,” says Gilles Sousa, international sales chief at Bac Films. It has Dutch helmer David Verbeek’s psychological thriller “Full Contact” playing in Platform, the newly launched competitive section of 12 foreign movies. “Whereas if you rely only on market screenings it’s a struggle to get any attention.”

Yohann Comte, Gaumont’s deputy head of sales, concurs: “It’s the only fall festival where you can hope to sell (to) the whole world in a few days. That said, if your film isn’t selected for Gala or Special Presentation, it’s tough to raise awareness unless it’s a highly anticipated movie.”

Last year, Gaumont managed to sell English-language territories on Anne Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovery” and Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s “Samba,” which played in the Special Presentation and Gala sections, respectively, Comte says.

While it remains unofficial, TIFF’s market is also getting more structured. “A few years ago we’d have to pin down buyers in the lobby of Hyatt between two screenings or when they missed a screening,” Sousa says. “Now we get to set up proper meetings in designated places.”

The launch of Platform, the inaugural competitive section of 12 foreign-language movies, marks a turning point for Toronto and the world cinema industry. Kicking off with eight world premieres and four French films, Platform aims to increase the global profile of “free, daring and transformative” movies from overseas, says Cameron Bailey, Toronto’s artistic director.

“Canadians are known for smart compromises so we’ve managed to maintain a balance between the creative and commercial sides of the business, and between studio films, big independent movies and arthouse cinema,” Bailey says. “Our job as curators is to get all of those grounds connected and covered.”

Isabelle Giordano, managing director of French promotion organization UniFrance, applauds the creation of Platform. Because Toronto has gained a higher profile attracting big English-language world premieres and Hollywood stars in the run-up to the Oscars in recent years, there seemed to be fewer opportunities for foreign-language movies to get their fair share of the limelight, says Giordano, who will be hosting a networking lounge at Toronto with Chanel and Canada’s Telefilm to draw focus on French films, TV drama and talent.

While Platform is widely perceived as a good omen for world cinema, some insiders have pointed out the potential impact on sales strategy if Toronto were to become an official category A — therefore competitive — festival. According to Intl. Federation of Film Producers Assns. (FIAFP) rules, it would no longer be allowed to select movies for its competition lineup if the films have previously opened at other category A fests like Cannes, Venice, San Sebastian, Karlovy Vary and Tokyo.

That change of status would reduce our options to showcase films internationally and would limit the access to Toronto. But Bailey told Variety that Toronto “had not plan to change its FIAFP designation” in spite of the bow of Platform and its growing emphasis on world premieres.

And ultimately, as Giordano points out, the competition between fall festivals — Toronto, Telluride, Venice and now San Sebastian — adds strength to the market.

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