Can political clickbait become box office bait? With a huge wave of issue-based films premiering at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival that are torn from the headlines, Hollywood is about to find out.
This year’s TIFF will be an unofficial test market for projects that have had an easier time getting financed in recent years, thanks to activist investors, politically motivated stars, award-season success stories, and more deep-pocketed outlets to fund and distribute them. But given how people are bombarded with issues on TV and social media, especially this election season, it’s unclear if topical subject matter will help the projects break through the clutter of the indie marketplace.
Participant Media executive VP of narrative film Jonathan King feels confident that they will, and for good reason. His media company, perhaps the leading funder of sociopolitical features for more than a decade, has one of its biggest TIFF lineups ever: the oil-spill disaster pic “Deepwater Horizon”; the Holocaust legacy drama “Denial”; the anti-bullying fantasy “A Monster Calls”; and the poet-politician biopic “Neruda.”
“Films dealing with real issues have been working in the marketplace — not just our movies like ‘Spotlight’ and ‘Bridge of Spies,’ but others as well,” says King. “So I think the big supply is indicative of a demand for them. The idea that you can’t make a good business out of producing smart, engaging movies for adults … I don’t think people really believe that anymore.”
Though Participant’s cable channel Pivot is shuttering — something King attributes to the changing landscape of distribution and the way people watch TV, rather than a lack of interest in storytelling — the healthy $97.6 million in worldwide box office for its Oscar winner (and 2015 TIFF pic) “Spotlight” underlines his point.
|A running theme this year at TIFF are films that illuminate social issues, including ‘Denial’ from director Mick Jackson|
Another reason for all the issue-based movies in Toronto this year? “A lot of the films that are the most exciting in terms of political themes are also attracting significant talent, which obviously helps get them financed,” says TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey. He cites the allegorical monster movie “Colossal,” starring Anne Hathaway, and Ewan McGregor’s Vietnam War-era drama “American Pastoral.” Even TIFF’s opening night period Western, “The Magnificent Seven,” highlights economic issues that wouldn’t be out of place at a Bernie Sanders rally, with star Denzel Washington leading a band of gunslingers against a greedy industrialist.
But distributors remain a bit cautious. “Films perceived by buyers as parochial, depressing and issue-driven in a way that overwhelms their entertainment value are sure to have sales challenges,” says Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. Yet he had a specialty sleeper hit with the 2014 political thriller “A Most Wanted Man,” which took in $36 million worldwide. He points out that Bleecker Street’s 2015 TIFF pickup, “Eye in the Sky,” “had a lot of political content and succeeded in a big way.” The $2 million-plus domestic buy led to $18.7 million at the specialty box office, but Bleecker Street wasn’t as lucky with Netflix’s first day-and-date entry — the African child soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation” — which made only $90,777 last fall.
Sales/distribution outfit Submarine is selling two topical docs — the urban development saga “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” and (with Cinetic) the Stasi memoir “Karl Marx City.” It’s also screening pre-sale footage from the ebola/zika virus pandemic doc “Unseen Enemy” with partner CNN. Though Submarine co-founder Josh Braun feels strongly that the films he’s repping have audience appeal and stand on their own merits, he’s generally skeptical about this year’s sociopolitical fare.
“There’s a lot of engagement from organizations, funding entities, and individuals who feel strongly about financing films that speak to an issue they care about,” Braun says. “So a lot of those films get made because they find the funding” rather than audience demand for them. “Someone pitched us a doc that would be connected to Trump potentially getting into the White House, [but] you’d have to make it in two weeks, and even then, we’re all so sick of hearing about it….”
Whether this year’s presidential race will fuel interest in political biopics or douse it, viewers will certainly have a lot to choose from at TIFF, including “LBJ,” “Jackie” (as in Kennedy) and the young Barack Obama biopic “Barry.”
|“A lot of the films that are the most exciting in terms of political themes are also attracting significant talent.”|
Rob Reiner’s “LBJ” will be one of the biggest tests of Toronto’s market for political films. CAA and Voltage Pictures are representing sales on the $25 million-plus project, which Acacia Filmed Entertainment and Savvy Media Holdings producer Matthew George helped get off the ground with debt financing and no pre-sales. George is funding another Reiner film, “Shock and Awe,” about the Iraq War, under a similar model based on its cast and director. “I’m a bit of a political junkie, and a lot of audiences enjoy going to films steeped in history — ‘Selma’ did very well — but it mainly comes down to the script,” George says.
“Barry” will compete with another just-released young Obama pic, “Southside With You,” and at TIFF, both “Loving” and “A United Kingdom” offer true stories of controversial interracial relationships. But “Kingdom” helmer Amma Asante sees them as “complementing each other,” and offers one of the smartest arguments for audience interest in topical fare.
“Even when you’re doing a period piece, the first question a financier will ask is: ‘Why tell this story now?’” she says. “America’s had its first black president, it may be about to have its first female president, Britain is about to remove itself from the EU. As countries struggle to define themselves through politics, social media is allowing people to engage with each other and we’re becoming more political again. We can have opinions on faraway countries that we couldn’t have so easily maybe 10 or 15 years ago.”
Some of the top sources of support for issue-based films include Impact Partners, Ford Foundation, and ITVS (which often pre-acquires TV rights). And as with Participant’s Jeff Skoll, such financiers as Benaroya Pictures’ Michael Benaroya (“Margin Call”) see funding films, including Werner Herzog’s eco-thriller “Salt and Fire,” as part of a mission. “It’s incumbent on all of us who make a lot of films to have at least one social-issue picture in your slate at any time,” Benaroya says. “My family takes as much or more pride in the philanthropic work we’ve done than any professional achievement, so that’s how I was raised — trying to make a difference.”
Others, including “The Ivory Game” producer/co-helmer Kief Davidson, are harnessing the power of corporations, billionaires, content-hungry outlets, and even celebs to get their message out. “I’ve been doing this for a while, and this has been the best time in my career to get financing for documentaries,” he says. “And with [such outlets as] Amazon and CNN and HBO, there are so many more places to get it from.”
|Biopic ‘Barry’ is one of several films in the festival that focus on dynamic individuals.|
For his elephant poaching doc, Davidson immediately got funding from Red Bull subsidiary Terra Mater Factual Studios and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Prods., each of which had been working on its own elephant projects. “It was less about the film for Vulcan than the cause and the impact campaign that would go along with it,” he says. Netflix came aboard later, as did Leonardo DiCaprio (who also appears in the TIFF climate change doc “Before the Flood”) as an exec producer via his Appian Way shingle. “We weren’t looking for money from him,” Davidson says. “If we were going to have a celebrity aboard, it was important that it was someone who really cares and would work hard to fight for the cause.” (For more on the doc, see story, page 74.)
Making projects torn from the headlines can be a double-edged sword. A recent report alleging sketchy funding for DiCaprio’s charitable foundation and news of “The Birth of a Nation” director-star Nate Parker’s 2001 acquittal in a rape trial now threaten to overshadow the worthwhile issues their TIFF films highlight.
But much as they do in the ever-changing stream of cable and online news, even these controversies may get lost amid the flood of topics taking up a big chunk of TIFF’s 296 features. They include: NSA surveillance (“Snowden”), war-torn Africa (“The Journey Is the Destination”), geopolitical conflict (“The Promise,” “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”), medical malpractice (“150 Milligrams,” “Brain on Fire,” “I, Daniel Blake”), mental illness (“Wakefield,” “Christine”), the death penalty (“Apprentice”), gentrification (“Aquarius”), journalistic ethics (“The Fixer”), radical Islam and terrorism (“Foreign Body,” “Heaven Will Wait,” “Layla M.,” “Nocturama,” “Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves” the TV series “Tuko Macho”), human trafficking (“The Road to Mandalay”), political torture (“Zaćma: Blindness,” “Hissène Habré, A Chadian Tragedy”), refugee crises (“Fire at Sea,” “Ta’ang”), institutional corruption (“Graduation,” “Ma’ Rosa,” “Goldstone”), rape (“Elle,” “Anatomy of Violence”), discrimination against the LGBT community (“Santa & Andres”), and First Nation children (“We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice”).
And that list doesn’t include TIFF’s docs that are covering the 2008 financial crisis (“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”), teens in a war zone (“Gaza Surf Club”), Taliban gender oppression (“Girl Unbound”), race in America (“I Am Not Your Negro”), the Bernie Sanders of India (“An Insignificant Man”), Burmese migrants (“In Exile”), and Syria (“The War Show”).
“It’s fascinating to have this particular lineup in the last few months of the Obama presidency, with the U.S. election coming up and so much volatility happening around the world politically,” TIFF’s Bailey says. “It’s going to be interesting to see how audiences talk to each other about these films. We didn’t plan it this way — we were simply looking for the best films.”