5 Toronto Burning Questions: Shia LaBeouf, Netflix and Festival Fever

The Toronto Film Festival kicks off Thursday with a slew of titles — from “The Martian” to “The Danish Girl” –that will define the fall movie business. But following a sluggish year at the box office for smaller films, what can buyers and sellers expect? Here are the five biggest burning questions for this year’s festival.

1. Will a slow summer hurt sales?
After three months where many indies movies under-performed—including Sundance darlings “Dope,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Mistress America,” “Tangerine” and “The Overnight” — some are wondering if buyers will tighten their purse strings as they head to Canada. It’s not that there weren’t any modest indie successes (see “A Walk In the Woods,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams” or “Love and Mercy”). But rather, the entrance of so many new digital buyers has pushed prices up at a time when smaller films continue to have a hard time attracting bigger crowds opposite tentpoles. And last year’s “Top Five,” which Paramount landed for $12.5 million, failed to make a splash as an edgy holiday comedy. But even with the flops outweighing success stories, sales agents are confident that the prices will only continue to soar. The sheer number of eager distributors entering Toronto still make it a seller’s market. Films including Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next,” Jonas Cuaron’s directorial debut “Desierto” and Drake Doremus’ “Equals” (starring Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult) are expected to add heat to the market.

2. How will Netflix and Amazon compete?
Netflix is just starting to make a splash in the movie business, following its $12 million acquisition of Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” which it’s rolling out at Toronto following Telluride and Venice. But the streaming service hasn’t been a prominent buyer at festivals — yet. Part of the challenge is that Netflix needs to scoop up worldwide rights for a title, so projects already pre-sold to certain territories are off the table. On the other hand, Amazon Studios’ business model is such that it can just acquire the North American rights, making it able to wrangle with traditional indie distributors. As competition for product remains high, Netflix and Amazon may have to include a theatrical release to appeal to filmmakers who don’t want to sacrifice the big-screen experience for a big payday.

3. Even with prices up, will bidding wars be more rare?
Relativity’s bankruptcy takes a major festival buyer off the board, spelling bad news for indie filmmakers. The studio snapped up “Black or White” at last year’s Toronto gathering and spent liberally for “The Bronze,” the still-unreleased Sundance opener. Exacerbating the situation, the Weinstein Company, a frequent festival deal-maker that filmmakers could rely on to drive up prices, is suffering from a cash crunch and may leave the checkbook at home this year. Newcomers like Broad Green Pictures, the Orchard, Bleecker Street and STX Entertainment are well capitalized, but they may be unwilling to get into bidding wars, and some are looking for more commercial titles that don’t make the trek to festival. After all, spending big didn’t end so well for Relativity.

4. What films will emerge as the Oscar heavyweights?
Following Venice and Telluride, Toronto is where the dust settles on the upcoming fall awards season (“Twelve Years a Slave” and “Gravity” both emerged as the clear front-runners in 2013). This year, awards prognosticators will be watching to see if Fox’s “The Martian” lands — and if it can get Matt Damon back into the lead actor Oscar race, where he hasn’t appeared since 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.” Sony Picture Classics’ “Truth” (starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett) and Lionsgate’s “Freeheld” (Julianne Moore and Ellen Page) are also expected to figure into the acting categories, as well as a pair of releases from Focus Features: “Suffragette” (headlined by Carey Mulligan) and ‘The Danish Girl” (with Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander).

5. Who will have the biggest career reinvention?
Toronto has always been kind to actors trying to stage a U-turn — just ask Jennifer Aniston (“Cake”) or Al Pacino (who zipped through Toronto last year with “The Humbling” and “Manglehorn”). This year, the most improved award could go to Johnny Depp, who after coasting for years in projects like “The Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise,” “Alice in Wonderland” and the dreadfully reviewed “Transendence” and “Mortdecai,” finally returns to grittier pastures with the Warner Bros. release of “Black Mass.” He’s not the only one looking to improve his image. After announcing his retirement, wearing a paper bag over his head and popping up in random music videos, Shia LaBeouf  comes out of hiding for Dito Montiel’s drama “Man Down.” And Charlie Kaufman finally reclaims the director’s chair after a seven-year hiatus following the divisive “Synecdoche, New York” with the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa,” looking to recapture his “Being John Malkovich” glory days.

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