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Toronto’s Biggest Deal Goes to HBO: A Sign of the Future? (Column)

When it comes to how we’ll be watching movies — or, at least, watching serious dramas for adults — in the future, here are two stark and timely contradictory facts:

1. Last week, as the Toronto International Film Festival drew to a close, a deal that had been in the rumor stage for a while was finally announced: “Bad Education,” a tense and enthralling Long Island white-collar-crime noir, starring Hugh Jackman in a head-turning performance (and Allison Janney in a memorable follow-up to her Oscar-winning turn in “I, Tonya”), was sold for a whopping $17 million — the kind of deal that makes headlines out of Sundance, and that in Toronto may stand out even more, since TIFF, with so many major films coming into the festival already having distributors, is less of a high-profile market. That said, the “Bad Education” deal, juicy as it sounds, was not (in all likelihood) for theatrical release. The film was sold to HBO, which means that it will probably be shown only on HBO. It will likely be a contender not for the Oscars but for the Emmys. That makes it sound like a game-changer, a cutting-edge example — or maybe you could call it a casualty — of the shifting sands of movie distribution.

2. If the “Bad Education” deal can be read as a symbolic sign that in the streaming/why-should-I-bother-going-out-when-I-have-my-big-screen-TV? era, serious dramas for adults at the megaplex could be going the way of the dodo bird, here’s what actually happened at the megaplex this weekend. In the third frame of September, the number-one movie in America, coming in with a rock-‘em sock-‘em $31 million gross that outstripped “Rambo: Last Blood” and the Brad Pitt space opera “Ad Astra,” is “Downton Abbey,” a four-years-after-the-fact adaptation of the stiff-upper-lip TV series. That’s called serious-drama-for-adults power.

Speaking of which, the other major hit of the early fall is “Hustlers,” the J. Lo-led true-life tale of New York strippers turning the lap-dance tables on the Wall Street players who treat them as fleshpot utensils. The fact that “Hustlers” has such a sensationalized subject hardly guaranteed that it would be a success. “Striptease” and “Showgirls” were infamous bombs, and the film career of Jennifer Lopez, as terrific an actress as she is, has been on a slow slide ever since “Monster-in-Law” (2005). “Hustlers” is a serious drama that has succeeded on the strength of its reviews, its awards chatter, and the way it taps into an up-to-the-minute mood of women’s economic aggrievement.

So which of those scenarios is the harbinger of the future? They both are. That’s the way movies have always worked, their success (or failure) sending out mixed signals that the industry reads however it wants to. In this case, though, it’s important to clarify that neither scenario is happening in a vacuum.

“Bad Education” is a hard movie to sum up in a sentence (it’s a true-life tale about a school-system budget scandal, and hidden sexuality), but the fact that a drama this brilliantly executed, and with this kind of pedigree, will probably never see the inside of a movie theater feels like a symptom of the choppy waters of the indie world in 2019. There’s a shadow story behind the deal — the fact that in the previous eight months, too many of those highly touted Sundance movies failed to perform.

I personally think too much expectation was placed on the shoulders of “Late Night,” a movie that never struck me as much of a crowd-pleaser. I was one of the few people at Sundance who didn’t like it, but the fact that it was bought for $13 million and talked about as “the new ‘Big Sick'” wasn’t a great sign. The movie didn’t have that kind of romantic hook at its center — and frankly (though this is always subjective), given the smart-mouth star moxie that Emma Thompson brought to it, the picture wasn’t funny enough. Even a good movie can disappoint at the box office, but the relative failure of “Late Night” seemed to nudge the entire indie world off course. Too many Sundance films after that (“Brittany Runs a Marathon,” “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” “Luce”) never found their audience. Even the rousing Bruce Springsteen-fueled drama “Blinded by the Light” couldn’t start a fire without a spark.

Yet it wasn’t all gloom and doom. “The Farewell” has been a triumph, and for good reason. It’s a transporting movie, one that announced the arrival of Awkwafina as a major dramatic actress. “The Farewell,” which has already outstripped the success of the 2018 Sundance breakout “Eighth Grade,” is a sign that a Sundance film can still connect in a major way. (And there’s one more superb Sundance movie to come: “The Report,” a U.S.-torture-policy whistleblower drama of gripping resonance, starring Adam Driver, who is having quite a year.)

So based on all that, what does the future look like?

It looks like a future in which we’ll surely see more deals like the one struck for “Bad Education.” We appear to be in the thick of the streaming era, but the truth is that we’re just in the opening seconds of it. Once the streaming arms of Disney, Apple, and others are up and running, with Netflix suddenly looking like a big fish in a pool with many other big fish, those services are going to need prestige product to feed them. They’ll create a great deal of it, but they’ll purchase it too — at festivals like Sundance and Toronto. Limited theatrical windows will often (though not always) be part of the deal. The new credo could be: Not every good movie has to be in the Oscar race.

Does this make me fret a bit? Frankly, it does. Much as I love HBO, it’s no slur against that cable behemoth to say that I wonder about the fate of a movie like “Bad Education” once it’s no longer quite…a movie. That sounds like old-school thinking, and I get it. It’s still a movie, in the same way that films going all the way back to the ’80s were still movies when people watched them on VHS. But when I saw “Bad Education” in a theater in Toronto, the effect was galvanizing. The film will work just fine at home (in the same way that “Election,” the 1999 classic that “Bad Education” often recalls, works fine at home), but in its intimate way it deserves the enveloping qualities of the big screen. I worry about it getting lost.

If the industry looks at “Bad Education” selling to HBO as a paradigm for what it might like to follow in the future, then we’ll have one kind of future, with big spectacle movies in theaters and realistic dramas for adults tending toward the small screen. I hope that’s not the case. Then again, the real message of this past week isn’t necessarily about headline indie deals. The message is that studios, having all but cancelled the mid-budget drama for adults, would do well to reconsider that strategy. Viewed strictly as products, films like “Downton Abbey” and “Hustlers” have done too well to ignore. And even the upcoming dark-event movie “Joker,” in a highly paradoxical way, reinforces that lesson. It is already the most talked about, the most debated, the most anticipated comic-book blockbuster in years. Yet in so many ways, it’s not a comic-book movie at all. It’s a film without superhuman fantasy, without zappy visual effects, made for a relatively modest budget ($55 million). Whatever one ends up thinking of “Joker” (and I loved it), it is — dare I say it? — a serious drama for adults. If the film turns out to be as big as some predict, then that could be more than a trend. It could be the start of a revolution.

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