The Toronto Film Festival kicks off with Denzel Washington and the remake of Sony Pictures’ “The Magnificent Seven,” but that adjective — magnificent — hardly applies to the current state of the movie business.

Now in its 41st year, this edition of the festival will have much of the familiar pageantry that keeps filmmakers and studio executives heading north of the border. The red carpets around the city center will be trod by the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Anne Hathaway, all on hand to try to launch their films into the Oscar race. Yet there’s a throb of anxiety and uncertainty undercutting this year’s festival, a nagging feeling that the film industry is in flux, the star system in decline, and the avenues available to push a film into profitability more difficult to navigate than ever before.

“It’s such a changing landscape that it makes everyone a little bit shy about doing deals,” says Mimi Steinbauer, president and CEO of Radiant Films Intl.

C.J. Burton

Those who flock to Toronto come in part because the festival and the market promise films with a more populist flavor. That’s different than the edgier wares that are typically on display at Sundance, or the international flare that accompanies the projects for sale at Cannes. The reasons for dusting off the passport remain the same, but the business of movies has undergone dramatic changes, much of them stemming from the influence of Netflix and Amazon.

Billed as game-changers a few years ago, the streaming giants have the financial wherewithal to land any hot project they fancy, thus raising the stakes for all potential bidders. The question is, will they be as active at this year’s festival? Both companies are moving toward producing their own movies in-house, instead of relying on acquiring finished productions. That could make for fewer bidding wars.

There may not be as many distributors available for agents to pit against one another, as in years past. The Weinstein Co. — which, three years ago, snagged “Begin Again” in a heated Toronto bidding war, only to see it wilt at the box office — is more focused on its television business than its trademark feature film operation. Alchemy, distributor of “Meet the Patels,” filed for bankruptcy this summer after suffering a string of flops, and other companies, such as Broad Green, are rejiggering their business plans, abandoning art-house fare in favor of more overtly commercial movies. Then there’s Relativity Media, freshly emerged from Chapter 11 protection. Dana Brunetti, the newly minted president of the company’s Motion Picture and Television Group, will be on the ground in Toronto looking for films to acquire.

The turmoil in the space may end up discouraging some bidders. “The irrational exuberance may be dying down,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures. “A lot of people lost a lot of money in the last couple of years.”

There is indeed a sense of caution leading into the festival, as prospective buyers wait to see whether the big-buzz titles live up to the hype. Often, they don’t.

“There’s always a bunch of things that look great on paper. And it’s never the same films everybody is talking about when they’re leaving,” says Bowles.

That was the case at last year’s TIFF. For instance, after “Where to Invade Next” — a look at American social and political foibles — debuted to a standing ovation, director Michael Moore mentioned several times during the festival that bidders were circling the project. But a deal didn’t materialize until weeks after the festival ended. Then, when the film finally hit theaters, it eked out $3.8 million. Meanwhile, “Eye in the Sky” — a Helen Mirren thriller that debuted to a respectful but more muted reception — sold to Bleecker Street while Toronto was still unfolding, and went on to be one of the breakout indie releases of the year, racking up $18.7 million.

“It seems like there’s a lot more for sale than there was last year, when you had a lot of titles that already had distribution.”
Jessica Lacy, ICM

Among the projects that have buyers furiously doing pre-festival mental calculations this year are “Colossal,” an offbeat monster movie with Anne Hathaway; “Jackie,” a biopic with Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy; “The Promise,” a love story set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide with Christian Bale; and “LBJ,” a historical drama with Woody Harrelson as the 36th president.

“It seems like there’s a lot more for sale than there was last year, when you had a lot of titles in the festival that already had distribution,” says Jessica Lacy, partner and head of independent and international film at ICM Partners.

While that may be true, there is a sense that Toronto appreciates a type of film that is at odds with the general cultural direction of the movie business. In the past, Toronto served as a key stop for Oscar winners like “Birdman” and “Spotlight” — films that critics love, but not the ones most executives are eager to greenlight. Major studios have largely abandoned the mid-budget dramas and character pieces that the festival celebrates in favor of comic-book movies that play well in China and other emerging markets.

“It’s that middle section of the movie business that so often gives us the best movies, that feels like it’s in danger,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

Heightening the pressure for indie distributors on the market at Toronto is the significant change in consumer behavior. Gone are the days where DVDs could be counted on to lift a film to profitability. Meanwhile, newer forms of distribution, such as video-on-demand, have not grown to the point where they can replace the disc sales and rentals that have largely collapsed.

“The economics of what a distributor can make back from a film have changed,” says Alex Walton, president of the foreign-sales outfit Bloom. “That’s made them more reliant on what they can earn from a theatrical run.”

It’s a vanishing breed of movie stars who can spark a bidding war, and, even then, star power isn’t what it once was. Two years ago, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling had buyers salivating at the prospect of pairing the two actors together in an action comedy from the team behind “Lethal Weapon.” But when “The Nice Guys,” the fruits of their collaboration, hit theaters last summer, it bombed.

Even getting names attached to a project requires a lot of scheduling hurdles, particularly with actors and actresses’ dance cards filled with comic-book movies and sequels.

“The list of very big movie stars is shorter and shorter,” said Steinbauer. “And they’re shooting so many of these franchises that they’re not available to the independents.”

Talking Points
• More in-house productions from Netflix and Amazon, plus less involvement from indie distributors, could mean fewer bidding wars.
• Indies are feeling the pressure from VOD and TV.

But at the same time, as distributors consider festival purchases that might have successful theatrical runs, they’re faced with competition from premium cable and streaming services. The quality of what’s available in the home continues to improve, attracting viewers who might once have spent their Saturday evenings at the multiplex. Indeed, from a production standpoint, there’s little difference between high-quality shows such as HBO’s “The Night Of” or FX’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” and most of the major movies hitting theaters.

“TV got a lot better, and now it takes a lot of eyeballs,” says Nicolas Chartier, the head of Voltage and producer of “The Hurt Locker.”

While these factors are making buyers cautious, splashy deals are not extinct. At Sundance, Fox Searchlight shelled out a record $17.5 million for Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” and at Cannes, STX plunked down a whopping $50 million for foreign rights to Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

With prices for hot titles continuing to escalate, some distributors have found novel ways to game out the market. Instead of waiting for Cannes or Sundance, they’re buying projects at the script stages, or nabbing finished films before they ever hit the festival circuit.

“Buyers are more proactive, building their relationships with talent earlier on, and staying active in the process of films being put together,” said Mark Ankner, a partner at WME. “You can’t just wait for a list of projects that are going to market.”

Those who wait for Toronto will need endurance and an appetite for taking risks. It’s a game that plays out in an exhausting swirl of meetings and deal-making, unfolding in hotel lobbies, bars, and suites.

“It’s like being in a triathlon, but in the sport of watching movies,” says Paul Davidson,  executive VP of the Orchard. “You have to power through.”