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Toronto: Will Sundance Film Festival Failures Depress Sales?

Sight unseen, Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” is expected be one of the biggest sales of the Toronto Film Festival. Its opening night launch begins what sales agents and filmmakers are hoping will be a hot market.

The hotly anticipated look at the United States’ perpetual state of war has been closely guarded, but Moore’s commercial track record is formidable (he is, after all, the director of the highest grossing documentary in history, “Fahrenheit 911”) and the topic seems tailor-made to levitate Fox News commentators.

On Thursday, executives at potential bidding companies reported they were having trouble scoring seats to the sold-out premiere of “Where to Invade Next.” It’s not the only hot ticket. In addition to Moore’s latest, the festival will offer up Drake Doremus’ “Equals,” a sci-fi romance with Kristen Stewart; “Man Down,” a war drama with Shia LaBeouf; “Septembers of Shiraz,” an Iranian revolution drama with Adrien Brody; “Remember,” a thriller with Christopher Plummer and “Maggie’s Plan,” a romantic comedy with Greta Gerwig — all of which are on the hunt for distribution.

There are also unfinished projects or films that are screening out of competition such as “Miss Sloane,” a gun control drama with Jessica Chastain, and “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the story of an aspiring opera singer with Meryl Streep, that could spark intense bidding.

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However, not every prospector heading to Toronto is convinced there’s much gold to find up north.

“There are fewer of the more obvious commercial titles than in previous years,” complained an acquisitions executive. “There aren’t as many cast-driven projects.”

Studios and distributors do appear wary. Digital players like Netflix and Amazon are driving up the cost of acquiring content and that’s making it more difficult for traditional companies that make their money from theatrical releases and home entertainment sales to stay grounded.

“The bottom line is there are more distributors than there are good movies, and as long as that’s the case, it’s going to be competitive,” said Jeff Deutchman, VP of acquisitions for Alchemy. “Thats what leads to irrational prices in the market.”

Festival fever certainly seemed to be on display at last year’s Toronto, when “Top Five” sold for $12.5 million, managing to eke out $25 million at the box office but with much higher expectations. It reared its head at the prior year’s confab when “Begin Again” got a $7 million bid and a $20 million promotional and marketing commitment, before going on to do a mere $16 million at the domestic box office.

“You have to trust your gut and not get caught up with the audience reaction,” said Lia Buman, president of acquisitions at Focus Features. “Art and business have to meet.”

That combination wasn’t always on display at this year’s Sundance. The indie film market came roaring back, with films like “Dope,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and “The D-Train” all snagging big paydays, only to wither at the summer box office.

“It’s hard to compete in a market against ‘The Avengers’ and “Jurassic World,'” said Mara Winokur, senior vice president of digital at Starz Digital Media. “The amount of money you have to spend on [advertising] is amazing. These films were snapped up for crazy prices and the market needs to come down to more reasonable prices.”

Beyond the Sundance wreckage, studios and distributors may display more frugality because of the recent stock market volatility. Its origins may be a slowdown in the Chinese economy, something that has little to do with indie films, but the psychological impact could be felt halfway across the globe.

“When people are afraid they offer less money and the people who are selling accept less,” said Russell Levine, CEO of Route One Entertainment. “When everybody is flush and the financial markets are in a positive direction, people are a lot freer with money.”

When it comes to finding the right film to place a bet on, there are good and bad aspects to Toronto audiences’ enthusiasm for all things cinema. It’s a forgiving crowd, but the locals’ penchant for liberally doling out standing ovations can mask a film’s deficiencies.

“From an acquisitions point of view, you have to keep your eyes wide open and monitor the reviews,” said Robert Kessel, senior vice president of production at Participant Media.

But it also allows filmmakers and studios to see how a picture may play with more mainstream ticket buyers, instead of the cinephiles who flock to Cannes and Sundance.

“This is not an industry audience,” said Elise Pearlstein, senior vice president of documentary films at Participant. “The people of Toronto come out for this and that allows you to get a sense of how non-industry folks will respond to your film.”

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