Why Buyers Will Be More Cautious Than Ever at Toronto Film Festival

The Orchard thought it had landed one of the glossiest packages at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “I Love You, Daddy.” The boundary-pushing story of a TV writer who grows alarmed after an older director becomes obsessed with his teenage daughter, the movie had all the makings of an art-house breakout. But the passion project directed by and starring Louis C.K., which sold for a hefty $5 million, would never open in theaters.

Less than a month later, “I Love You, Daddy” was deemed un-releasable after an investigation published in The New York Times revealed that C.K. had forced several women to watch him masturbate. The fiasco taught The Orchard a valuable lesson, one that has taken on added resonance as one high-profile figure after another has become embroiled in sexual harassment or abuse scandals.

“You have to do your homework,” says Paul Davidson, the indie studio’s executive VP of film and TV. “When you’re picking up a movie and there’s a singular talent behind it, you need to be extra vigilant. Their personal life may impact the film’s ability to be received in a positive versus a negative way.” C.K. eventually bought the film back from the distributor.

“Lady Bird” was a hit for A24, earning five Oscar noms, including one for star Saoirse Ronan. But “Breathe” and “On Chesil Beach” were no bargain for Bleecker Street.
Courtesy of A24/Bleeker Street

The atmosphere that Hollywood emissaries will encounter at this year’s Toronto will be markedly different from festivals past. In the past year, the movie business has been upended by a sexual harassment crisis that has toppled the careers of major stars and moguls such as Harvey Weinstein, formerly a festival fixture. It’s also leading to more cautious buyers. Insiders say that sales contracts have become more rigorous, with potential distributors pushing to include more expansive morality clauses that will prevent them from being stuck with a film that gets derailed.

The independent movie business has always been risky, but never more so than now. Smaller films, once a staple of the fall box office, have had trouble breaking through in recent years. Two high-profile titles from the 2017 Toronto — “Breathe,” starring Andrew Garfield, and “On Chesil Beach” with Saoirse Ronan — both failed to crack $1 million in domestic ticket sales. But the festival also put wind in the sails of art-house darling “Lady Bird,” which went on to gross nearly $50 million and picked up five Oscar nominations.

Toronto was once perceived as the first crucial caucus on the long road to awards season. While some of the novelty factor of the festival has dimmed — Venice and Telluride have been snagging bigger titles just a week earlier — Toronto is still a proving ground for which movies could emerge as Oscar heavyweights. Two early favorites, Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” remake and Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, will need to impress the Canadian (and other) press to demonstrate their gold-worthy chops. That’s where star power comes in handy. If Lady Gaga, making her big-screen acting debut in “Star,” shuts down downtown Toronto with her motorcade and extravagant frocks, she might confirm that Warner Bros. indeed has a hit on its hands.

Other films that will require a strong reception up north to survive the awards season horse race include Amazon Studios’ “Beautiful Boy,” starring Timothée Chalamet as a drug addict; “The Front Runner” with Hugh Jackman as presidential candidate Gary Hart; and “Widows,” Steve McQueen’s action movie in the spirit of Michael Mann, starring Viola Davis as a grieving wife with debts to settle.

Veterans say that the “festival of festivals” has a more populist appeal than snooty Cannes or maverick-minded Sundance. The movie theaters are peppered with studio executives and filmmakers, but they are also filled with locals, many of whom take off work to see the contenders and who mirror the tastes of filmgoers in Middle America. That makes the festival an effective barometer. “It really bridges the gap between cinephiles and a general audience,” says “Widows” producer Iain Canning. “It gives you a sense of how your film is going to play.”

Toronto may be seen as a key launching pad for movies in the Oscar hunt, but it has an uneven track record as a market. Last year, Neon scored when it picked up “I, Tonya” for $5 million and rode the Tonya Harding biopic to a $30 million domestic box office haul and an Oscar for Allison Janney. However, previous Toronto discoveries, such as “Their Finest” and “Begin Again,” all signed big distribution deals only to collapse.

Will this year’s batch fare better? On paper, a few are piquing buyers’ interest. “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” boasts an ensemble cast of A-listers, including Natalie Portman and Kit Harington, and is the vision of Xavier Dolan, the enfant terrible of the cinephile set. There’s also “High Life,” Claire Denis’ sci-fi drama with recovering heartthrob Robert Pattinson, and “American Dharma,” Errol Morris’ look at Trump guru Steve Bannon. Any of these films could be star-driven and zeitgeist-y enough to land major paydays.

“There’s not much available. Most of the stuff that is in the market doesn’t look all that exciting or Oscar-oriented.”
Tom Bernard, Sony Pictures Classics

“The one thing everyone still waits for is that surprise film that pops,” says Rena Ronson, partner and co-head of UTA Independent Film Group. “It’s always exciting to watch a film connect with an audience and have the market buzzing and turn into an exciting sale. I think the market will always be looking for the next ‘I, Tonya,’ discovery to kick into the awards season, or something splashy for 2019.”

Most studio hands say they’re not impressed with what’s available for the taking. As film festivals have become less consistent, independent strongholds such as Fox Searchlight and A24 have turned up the dial on producing their own movies, so they can control all aspects of the process. As a result, many of the films screening in Toronto have already secured distribution. Jonah Hill’s coming-of-age story “Mid90s” (A24) and Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Annapurna Pictures) are cited as the types of projects that would have once sparked furious bidding wars.

“There’s not much available,” bemoans Tom Bernard, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. “Most of the stuff that is in the market doesn’t look all that exciting or Oscar-oriented.”

There are other potential hurdles for sales agents trying to boost prices for films. Amazon, once a reliable buyer of festival titles such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “Landline,” is in the midst of an identity crisis. After Roy Price was fired in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, Jennifer Salke took the reins of the streaming service. Since coming on board, she’s largely focused on reinvigorating the television side of the business, but she’s sent signals that the film end of things could be in for a shake-up.

While Amazon is deliberating on whether it will continue to focus on indie fare or pivot to more popcorn tastes, the company has stopped making big purchases. The result is one fewer eager buyer. It’s possible another digital giant will fill the void left by the e-retailer. Apple, which is going deeper into the content business, will have executives at screenings and could be active in the acquisitions game.

Despite the challenges of navigating the indie space, many executives are bracing themselves for two weeks of relentless screenings and haggling for deals. Bill Bromiley, head of Saban Films, hopes to emerge from Toronto with two or three movies he can release in the coming months. He will see as many as six films a day, often leaving one screening in the middle if he determines it’s not right for Saban or if he has to rush across town to attend another showing.

“You drink a lot of coffee,” he says. “People always think it must be fun to get paid to watch movies, but after the 27th film, it doesn’t feel so amazing.”

A MILLION LITTLE PIECES Sam Taylor-Johnson Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton CAA
BUZZ FACTOR: Anticipation is high for Johnson’s first movie since “Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on the controversial book by James Frey.
WILD ROSE Tom Harper Jessie Buckley, Julie Waters, Sophie Okonedo CAA, UTA
BUZZ FACTOR: There’s strong early word of mouth on this uplifting tale about a Scottish musician.
HIGH LIFE Claire Denis Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche CAA
BUZZ FACTOR: This set-in-space saga could be another feather — after “Good Time” — in Pattinson’s indie cap.
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN Xavier Dolan Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon CAA
BUZZ FACTOR: Curiosity is strong for wunderkind director Dolan’s first English-language film, set in Hollywood.
THE WEDDING GUEST Michael Winterbottom Dev Patel Endeavor Content, UTA
BUZZ FACTOR: This journey through Pakistan and India rests on Patel’s capable shoulders.
AMERICAN DHARMA Errol Morris N/A Endeavor Content
BUZZ FACTOR: The director of “Fog of War” gives Steve Bannon the Robert McNamara treatment.
VOX LUX Brady Corbet Natalie Portman, Jude Law Endeavor Content, CAA
BUZZ FACTOR: Following a strong reception at Venice, the movie about a pop star will look to make a deal on the Toronto market.
SKIN Guy Nattiv Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Vera Farmiga ICM
BUZZ FACTOR: Bell gives a revelatory performance as a neo-Nazi in a drama that’s poised to be a surprise discovery of the festival.
THE HUMMING BIRD PROJECT Kim Nguyen Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård CAA
BUZZ FACTOR: Buyers say the film about high-frequency traders could be awards bait in the vein of “The Big Short.”
TELL IT TO THE BEES Annabel Jankel Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger Film Constellation
BUZZ FACTOR: This drama about two women who fall in love in a provincial British town could be a critics’ darling.
*Compiled by Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang

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