Toronto Film Festival Freezes Over With Few Big Deals

Jackie Natalie Portman
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

As Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” approached its terrifying climax, the sound and picture abruptly screeched to a halt. Members of the audience at Sunday’s Toronto Film Festival premiere gasped, as a smattering of boos filled the air. For the next few minutes, the 2,000-person crowd sat frozen in a dark room, wondering what would happen next. Then, finally, a projectionist got the picture going again, as the screen flickered back to life.

The technical breakdown is an apt metaphor for this year’s festival. There are certainly as many stars as ever north of the border — from Anne Hathaway to Amy Adams — but something feels off. It’s not just that deal-making is moving at a glacial pace. Studios seem disinterested in picking up product, as buyers complain that there’s rarely been a weaker assortment of films.

That’s not to say the independent film business is sliding into obsolescence. Quite the contrary, there are more players than ever before — from Netflix to Amazon to the mysterious Chinese buyer who snatched up “Colossal” over highly favored A24. That monster movie, starring Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, was supposed to be one of the more prized offerings to debut at Toronto. In fact, if anything, the market is sluggish because many of the glitziest movies playing here came with distributors in tow. As a result of competitors, studios are picking up movies like “Loving,” “Snowden” or even “Nocturnal Animals” at the script stage, to avoid all-out bidding wars at a venue like Toronto.

“It’s supply and demand,” says Paul Davidson, executive vice president of film and TV for the indie label Orchard. “Companies don’t need as much good product, so they aren’t rushing to make big bids.” But quality control could help — many of the indies here are so small, it’s doubtful they compete with TV, which continues to thrive in terms of quality.

Toronto also felt off because its status as an Oscar kingmaker is now in question. Once the launching pad for the Oscars race with big splashy premieres for awards favorites like “American Beauty,” Venice and Telluride have stolen the festival’s thunder. As a result, Toronto now waits 72 hours (or more) before unveiling its best goods: “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” “Arrival,” “Jackie” and “Manchester by the Sea,” all of which debuted at other festivals. It makes for a snail-paced first few days. By the time Toronto finally feels like it’s revving up, people are already getting ready to pack their bags for the airport.

Ironically, the most dramatic moment in this year’s opening weekend wasn’t on the big screen. It was during an awkward press conference on Sunday, where members of the press grilled “The Birth of a Nation” star Nate Parker about a rape trial and subsequent acquittal dating back to his college days. Although the event wasn’t officially affiliated with the festival, it added to the uneasiness and uncertainty of the market. It was a reminder for buyer’s to beware — Fox Searchlight shelled out $17.5 million for the biopic about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, only to spend the last month fighting back press about its star’s past.

Fox Searchlight, did, however, give a moribund festival market a jolt of life late Monday night, swooping in to scoop up “Jackie” and taking one of the only hot projects off the table. The historical biopic is widely expected to earn Natalie Portman a ticket to the Oscars for her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy, but had some buyers grousing that it was more of an art house play than a mainstream picture. That’s a familiar refrain at this year’s festival and may be part of the reason why buyers have kept their checkbooks closed.

There are still several notable projects that are drawing interest from buyers and are expected to sell before the end of the festival. Those include “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary about writer James Baldwin; “Their Finest,” a World War II comedy, which has multiple offers; and “The Bleeder,” a boxing drama with Liev Schreiber that some buyers think could get an awards push.

But those are just the finished films. In years past, agencies have arrived with glossy packages that promise to unite a well-known star with a hot director, but that have yet to be filmed. This year, most of the scripts and star attachments are leaving studios cold.

“It’s definitely a different feeling in terms of the energy,” said Liz Kim Schwan, president of international at Covert Media, a film finance and distribution company. “There have not been a great number of big projects announced that getting the buyers buzzing.”

Agents argue privately that meetings are happening, and that a number of these talks will lead to consummation. It’s unusual for there to be so many films still searching for a home after nearly a week of screenings, particularly given that many studios executives have begun fleeing Canada.

“There seems to be the trend of people assessing the full landscape before they decide to go ahead and acquire something,” said Michael Luisi, president of WWE Studios.

Last year was slow too. In fact, it took so long for projects to sell that Variety noted it was the festival of “let’s not make a deal.” But it was practically a whirlwind of activity compared to this edition, when the major sales consist of “Jackie,” “Colossal,” and little else. By a similar point at last year’s gathering, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Miss Sloane,” and “Eye in the Sky” were just a few of the films to have already lined up distribution.

There are a number of reasons for the heightened caution. In the past, splashy pacts out of major film festivals haven’t worked out too well. “Begin Again” and “Hardcore Henry” are two films that scored multimillion deals out of Toronto only to wither at the box office.

Moreover, many major distributors came into Toronto with full slates. Netflix had moved heavily into producing its own movies, Amazon has several films that it has picked up at other festivals and markets, such as “Manchester by the Sea,” that it still needs to distribute, and Focus Features has a full slate of big movies yet to release, among them “A Monster Calls” and “Loving.”

“Probably we’ll leave without something new, but there’s still days left and we’ve still got the team running around screening things,” said Peter Kujawski, chairman of Focus Features. “We’re always on that quest for something that we fall in love with.”

Then there are macroeconomic trends that are putting pressure on the business, particularly in terms of international distributors. A stronger dollar is limiting the ability of European buyers to pay the prices they were a few years ago, while Asian buyers seem more interested in taking meetings than making deals, sales agents say. Than there are the headaches associated with Great Britain’s vote last summer to leave the European Union — a decision that sent the value of the British pound plunging.

“Some of the English buyers are talking about how much they’re suffering from the exchange rate,” said Lisa Wilson, co-founder and partner of the international sales company the Solution Entertainment Group.

As the festival eyes the finish line, there are several projects, many with big stars, that still need to find homes. It’s possible that many will remain adrift for weeks, even months, after the Hollywood hordes have left Canada.

“Most of the films were terrible,” one distribution executive griped. “I can’t wait to get home.”