Toronto Film Festival Buyers Face Harsh Lessons After Indie Flops

We’ve seen how this movie plays out.

Festival audiences lose their mind for, say, an uplifting drama or a biting satire. Their rapturous response sends studios scrambling for their wallets. Cue an all-night bidding war, and to the victor goes … an indie movie with iffy commercial prospects.

From “Late Night” to “Blinded by the Light,” many of the big sales at this year’s Sundance ended in financial failure. As the movie business gears up for the Toronto Film Festival, studios may be more wary of cutting big checks. Will an all-too-familiar narrative of frenzy resulting in flops change once Hollywood touches down in Canada?

“People have short memories,” says Tom Quinn, founder of Neon, the indie distributor behind “Parasite” and “Apollo 11.” “A lot of these failures are the result of companies chasing the moment and the headline. A big acquisition is alluring for a company that is ultimately trying to make a statement.”

Fortunately for the agents looking to sell movies, a number of players are hoping to make some noise. Emerging streaming services such as HBO Max and Disney Plus are in a race to snap up as much compelling content as possible as they arm themselves for a battle against Netflix.

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There’s word that Apple will be on the hunt for movies, but the company hasn’t been very forthcoming about what kinds of films it plans to highlight on its service. However, Apple certainly has the financial resources to buy anything that tickles its fancy.

In the past, some of these streaming services may have had to overpay in part because directors wanted their films to have a more traditional theatrical run. There was a stigma associated with selling to a digital platform. That’s dissipated, in part because auteurs on the level of Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”) and Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) have set up shop with Netflix and its ilk. Conse­quently, filmmakers have become more receptive to alternative distribution avenues.

“A couple years ago, the conversation with filmmakers was talking them through what day-and-date [releases] meant, and there was hesitancy,” says Mikey Schwartz-Wright, an agent in UTA’s Independent Film Group. “Now it’s the new normal.”

For Vanessa Saal, managing director of sales and distribution at Protagonist Pictures, streaming platforms have emerged as a natural home for films that might be too quirky to draw a crowd at the multiplexes. She’ll hit this year’s festival with “How to Build a Girl,” a coming-of-age story with Beanie Feldstein, that might be a natural fit for a company like Netflix, which has done well with young adult fare. However, there are frustrations with going the streaming route. It may hurt to have a movie crater at the box office, but at least filmmakers get a sense of how their film is performing. Digital services tend to be tight-lipped about how many people watch their movies — refusing to share data on ticket sales or streams with even the directors or producers, let alone the general public.

“Right now we have no visibility,” says Saal. She hopes that will change once HBO Max, Disney Plus and others enter the field. “Maybe more competition will put pressure on these platforms to share information so we as an industry can figure out what is a success and what is a failure.”

One streaming player may remain on the sidelines as the big deals get hammered out. Amazon Studios dominated the market at Sundance, shelling out more than $40 million for titles including “Late Night,” “Honey Boy” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon.”

Most studios measure success or failure based on ticket sales, but Amazon says it’s different. “We assess the success of our films through the lens of our Prime customers and not solely by box office returns,” says Matt Newman, co-head of movies at Amazon Studios. “The theatrical release is just one path to supporting the film before its Prime Video launch.”

Some of the movies it bought have yet to be released, but “Late Night” was a painful flop and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” faces an uphill climb to box office success. Moreover, the company has signaled it is less excited about the theatrical landscape than it once was. Upcoming movies such as “The Report” and “The Aeronauts” will have only a limited theatrical run before bowing on Amazon’s streaming platform, Prime.

“They’ve clearly made some mistakes, but now they don’t even have a distribution person,” one top agent notes, speaking anonymously. The agent says that Amazon hasn’t rushed to replace Bob Berney, the veteran marketing and distribution chief who left the company in June just as it was overhauling its theatrical release strategy. Without a seasoned executive to advise in that area, some content-brokers are hesitant to sell a project to Amazon, because they worry there won’t be anyone to orchestrate a successful rollout.

Privately, many agents think Amazon will be inoculated from festival fever at Toronto after catching a very bad case of it at Sundance. The aftershocks of the spending spree may take longer to wear off. Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have to rely on box office performance to justify splashy acquisitions. In the case of Netflix, the company is looking to sell subscriptions by offering content that can’t be found anywhere else. As for Amazon, it’s showing movies as an incentive to get customers to pay for expedited shipping and thus buy more paper products and household goods. These companies don’t want to overpay for movies or release them to empty theaters, but their bottom lines won’t be impacted dramatically one way or another. That means they’ve been more willing to loosen the purse strings, and that’s forced other, more theatrically oriented companies, such as Fox Searchlight and Focus, to get more comfortable with paying hefty prices for festival favorites. But there’s a wide gap between the select few movies that leave buyers salivating at Toronto and the films that struggle to attract their interest.

“There’s seemingly no middle ground,” says Arianna Bocco, executive vice president of acquisitions and production for IFC Films. “Either movies sell for a lot of money, or they scuffle to find theatrical homes.”

One thing that could depress prices is the films themselves. From “Hustlers” to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” most of the movies heading to Toronto for splashy premieres arrive with their distribution in place. Only a handful of films that are screening at the festival will be looking for a studio home. Compounding things is that two of the more promising acquisition targets, Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield” and the Bruce Springsteen documentary “Western Stars,” sold to Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros., respectively, in the weeks leading up to the fest.

“When you look at the field, you don’t see any ‘Manchester by the Seas,’” says Tom Bernard, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. “Nothing jumps out at you. You’re going to need to do a lot of searching to find the great movies under the rocks.”

Bernard may be pessimistic, but some films are drawing attention from buyers eager to fill out their slates. “Bad Education,” the true story of a school-larceny scandal, is said to showcase Hugh Jackman, and “The Friend,” about a man who moves in with a couple to support them as they grapple with a terminal cancer diagnosis, smacks of awards bait. Also popping up on studios’ radars are “Ema,” a drama about a young dancer that was directed by “Jackie” auteur Pablo Larraín; “Sound of Metal,” a music drama with Riz Ahmed; and “The Capote Tapes,” a documentary about writer Truman Capote that offers up unreleased archival recordings.

But festival veterans say that the best acquisitions are often the films that premiere to little buzz. Sony Pictures Classics, for instance, nabbed “Still Alice” at Toronto in 2014 when few studios were interested in a movie about a professor with Alzheimer’s. It went on to win Julianne Moore an Oscar.

“You can’t have a lemming mentality,” says Bocco. “You have to look at movies that other people might have walked out of or thought were boring from a different perspective. If I went into every festival trying to get the same things as everyone else was, I probably wouldn’t have bought half of the movies I did.”

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