“Bad Education,” a dramedy starring Hugh Jackman as the embezzling superintendent of district of schools in Long Island, N.Y., was set to be this year’s “I, Tonya.” The movie has the same biting tone, shifting between comedy and tragedy. It received strong reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival. And like “I, Tonya,” it even co-stars Allison Janney, this time playing a corrupt school administrator instead of the heartless matriarch to Tonya Harding.
But while “I, Tonya” soared out of Toronto two years ago, landing a fast distribution deal with Neon to the tune of $5 million, “Bad Education” has yet to stick the same landing. The movie debuted at TIFF on Sept. 8 to a jam-packed Sunday screening, running up against showings of high-profile films such as “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers; “Hustlers,” carried by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez; and “Jojo Rabbit,” an edgy comedy about a German boy during World War II whose imaginary best friend is a whimsical version of Adolph Hitler.
Despite highly favorable reaction, “Bad Education” did not leave the festival with a deal. Eight days later, it’s still wading through deep negotiations involving multiple players with no clear head of the class. The delay could put its prospects for next year’s Oscars in question. Every day counts: The Academy Awards telecast has been moved up to early February. If Jackman and Janney are indeed eligible for acting trophies in a few months, their campaigning days are numbered. Jackman’s window to work the circuit is even slimmer, as he’s about to start production on Lisa Joy’s sci-fi love story “Reminiscence” at Warner Bros.
As Toronto has come to a close, many buyers, sellers and producers are wondering how much trickier the quickly transforming movie market has gotten since a success like “I, Tonya.”
“Bad Education” is hardly alone in a club of (still) orphaned festival indies. Distributors are more reticent to shell out top dollar, even with the names of big actors attached. “The Friend,” a dramedy with Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson; “Citizen K,” Alex Gibney’s documentary about a Russian plutocrat who runs afoul of Putin, and “Blackbird,” with Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet, are still looking for studio homes. “The Friend” suffered from mediocre reviews as it negotiates with a possible domestic distributor (STX has international), but many of these other films scored solid notices from critics, something that in prior years would have resulted in big sales.
“It’s too early to tell if sales activity has decreased, but it’s definitely shifted in that people are being slower,” said Vanessa Saal, managing director sales and distribution at Protagonist Pictures, the maker of “How to Build a Girl” and “Sound of Metal.” “We’re closing some deals, but it’s taking three days whereas in the past it would have taken 24 hours.”
But that also has led to some questions about whether Toronto is now the most effective market to sell an indie film. As opposed to Sundance, which kicks off the year, most distributors have set their schedules through the final months of 2019. And given packed release calendars and the challenges of the independent film market, which continues to struggle to attract audiences against counterprogramming powerhouse streamers and their forthcoming competitors, the incentive to gamble on a festival favorite in September might be too daunting.
Privately, sources say, the sales agencies for “Bad Education” considered screening the film at some point in the summer to distributors in hopes of scoring a lucrative deal setting an early awards agenda. The film’s producers pushed back against that strategy, opting instead to roll the dice in Toronto, according to one knowledgeable insider. Another person close to the deal disputed this, saying the agencies wanted heat from the premiere to fuel spending.
Neither CAA, Endeavor or a spokesperson for the producers commented on the matter.
A deal is said to be close if not imminent, but it is unclear if the pact will be in the neighborhood of the $20 million deal for global rights that the agents were initially looking to land. Numerous bidders showed interest in the film but only on the condition they could release the film next year, directly in opposition to filmmakers hopes for gold trophies. Jackman would presently find himself squaring off against the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”), Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”), Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”), Michael B. Jordan (“Just Mercy”) and Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”).
Another crushing reality is that studios are still smarting from their Sundance Film Festival experiences with the Mindy Kaling comedy “Late Night,” the critical favorite “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and Bruce Springsteen-themed “Blinded by the Light.” That left many players wary of getting into a bidding frenzy, as experts predicted would happen when Variety looked at the market at the beginning of TIFF.
“It’s a money losing proposition to get into an auction over a movie where you pay too much,” Sony Pictures Classics chief Michael Barker told Variety in a video interview at the festival’s midpoint. He added, “We will not pursue a film unless we feel we have a road map for it to be successful.”
Tom Bernard, who co-heads the indie label, said that quality was a problem. “If you had ten great movies here, they’d go for large amounts of money,” he argued.
To be sure, some films did manage to snag distribution pacts, albeit at modest prices. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the art heist thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” starring Claes Bang and Mick Jagger, as well as “Lyrebird,” a drama that looks at Nazi art thefts; Amazon snagged “Sound of Metal”; and Bryce Dallas Howard’s documentary “Dads” sold to Apple. Other films, such as the Bruce Springsteen documentary “Western Stars” and Armando Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” went to Warner Bros. and Fox Searchlight before the festival kicked off. That robbed the market of more of its sizzle.
For the industry, this year’s Toronto was mostly notable for providing a venue to catch up on movies missed at Telluride (“Judy”), Venice (“Joker”) or Cannes (“Parasite”). Or launching a film that already had distribution — such as STX generating buzz for “Hustlers” the week before it debuted to a strong $33 million at the domestic box office.
A shortage of late night bidding wars has one upside — one well-rested agent noted that both sellers and buyers were able to get some sleep. That may put all parties in an urgent spending mood come Sundance.