Naomi Watts and David Oyelowo’s Oscar and Golden Globe nominations gave them the clout to produce several films. But nothing could have prepared the actors — or their sales agents — for trying to sell those features at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival (Sept. 10-20) during a global pandemic.

“There were endless calls with countless people on how to approach this, and yes, it would be much better to have a packed audience,” Watts says of arranging the TIFF premiere of her Endeavor Content-repped drama “Penguin Bloom.” “But we felt this was the right time, because this is a hopeful story.”

Oyelowo, who makes his directorial debut with the CAA/Endeavor Content-sold fantasy adventure “The Water Man,” faced similar struggles, but he sees an upside to this year’s downsized TIFF.  “Virtual Cannes was fairly successful as a market, and I think Toronto has supercharged that in combining virtual, drive-in and socially distanced screenings,” he says. “I think it ‘eventizes’ the films even more, because people are elated to hear that something is happening, as opposed to everything just being at a standstill.”

Buyers, sellers, filmmakers and execs are hoping such optimism is warranted. But with many elements of TIFF upended — 48-hour windows for online press and industry screenings, isolated home viewers and a greatly reduced lineup (from more than 330 films to just over a third of that) — the jury is still out.

“We’re all control freaks, but at the fall festivals this year, there’s no way of controlling anything,” one top sales rep says. “You can’t control the way audiences watch a movie, where they watch it and who they’re sitting next to, so that you can put yourself in the best position to win. In this case, those things aren’t there. For sellers, it’s terrifying.”

So are the numbers. In 2018, 71 TIFF films sold, including 53 that landed domestic distribution deals, and last year, 81 films sold, including 51 domestically. But this year, there are just over 60 official selections and special presentations on the official slate, and only 42 available to buy. To expand its unofficial market, the fest announced TIFF Industry Selects, a curated selection of 30 additional films available for sale (though less than a quarter of those are English-language titles).

On the hopeful side, sales agents have booked more than 40 private screenings for additional films that are not playing in the festival.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to support festivals,” says UTA Independent Film Group partner/co-head Rena Ronson, who has Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, “Falling,” and a film package for sale. “Sometimes that’s having a film play there, and sometimes it’s creating a market environment in conjunction with the festival or alongside the festival.”

The reduced lineup comes as no surprise, given concerns about fests as a platform, plus online piracy worries and fewer finished films in the pipeline. But another big reason is that numerous high-profile projects are being held back.

“Next year is going to be incredibly busy because many people are waiting to show their movies [then],” says CAA Media Finance co-head Roeg Sutherland, who has a slightly fewer than usual slate of 12 films up for sale.

As IFC Films executive VP of acquisitions and production Arianna Bocco notes: “Anything that has theatrical potential or isn’t looking for a timed release is going to hold until next year to sell. I’ve talked to a number of [sales agents] who’ve decided to hold off. They’re going to sell a few things in the fall, in Toronto. But for the most part, my understanding is that they’re going to wait until 2021.”

Notes Sutherland: “Initially we were holding movies for Venice and Toronto, hoping for a ‘normal-ish’ market where you would sell North American rights. But there is a huge appetite right now for content, and the industry has been creative in meeting that demand.”

He points to Sony’s “innovative” deal with Apple for a streaming release of the Tom Hanks-toplined action film “Greyhound” after it was set for theaters this summer.

For others, internal economics rule decisions to sell or hold films. “If you have an independent film that is financed with equity, [you can] probably hold off until things get better by the New York Film Festival, Sundance or Berlin,” says UTA Independent Film Group’s Nick Shumaker. “Bigger films that rely on pretty complex financing structures don’t always have the luxury to wait, because you’re dealing with delivery dates, performance sales dates to serve pre-sales and institutional lenders that want to see their money back.”

After a June Cannes with private online market and official selection screenings, and a Sept. 2-12 Venice Film Festival run, Toronto will be the first fest with a major film sales component to screen films for the public since COVID-19 caused cinema closures across the globe. But as TIFF opens, it must cope with a host of sad realities. Most of this year’s audiences — a small fraction of the 380,000 attendees last year — won’t see films at public screenings. And that’s a key reason sellers use it to generate bigger sales at an event known for being the “people’s festival.”

This leaves many industry experts worried. Who will buy titles now that wide theatrical releases are still in question? And how can buyers and sellers even gauge audience reactions for films when they’re playing to small, socially distanced audiences in a handful of theaters, at makeshift drive-ins or (in most cases) watching at home on their computers?

“Those days of having a film premiere at the Visa Theater in Toronto, and having every company huddle afterwards on the sidewalk, that’s not going to happen,” says Bocco. “And that feeds the environment of the sale. So I think it’s hard to re-create any kind of market or festival environment when we’re all at home.”

That’s by design this year, as TIFF organizers are discouraging foreign attendees. “Americans can’t go there without quarantining,” says Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. “So I don’t think that a lot of Americans are going to go. We’re certainly trying to remain optimistic that the theatrical market will come back — we definitely need movies. But there are a lot fewer [new films] to look at, no question.”

“The independents need to buy movies now, though,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. “If they haven’t bought any by now, they’re going to have some problems in the spring.” The critical buzz that can influence prestige film sales will be reduced due to sharply limited press passes, but Bernard sees a silver lining. “They’re going to be a lot more selective, so I think they’re going to have more high-end critics,” he says.

TIFF senior director of industry and theatrical Geoff Macnaughton is working hard to address many of these concerns. His first priority was “nailing down a screening platform that checked off all the boxes” from security to studio-grade visual quality, something he’s found in the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform.

And while some see extended online screening windows as diluting a film’s buzz, Macnaughton says, “We’re learning from other [online] events that it’s hard to maintain people’s attention — we’re competing against things like daycare and childcare responsibilities. So if you’re an industry delegate on our digital platform, you can pause, take a break and come back to a film, just like your experience engaging with digital content from the comfort of your own home.”

He also hopes to increase industry attendance by “engaging with professionals that may not have been able to attend the festival due to costs around hotels and flights.” TIFF is gifting around 250 passes to underrepresented industry professionals and emerging filmmakers. Other expanded programs include master classes with high-profile decision-makers, industry dialogues with pairs of filmmakers and showrunners, and a new program, called perspectives, focusing on industry trends.

With eventual dates for wide theatrical releases still a big question mark, streamers such as Netflix, Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, Hulu, HBO Max and Peacock arrive at the fest with the advantage of guaranteed distribution and bigger pocketbooks. And a few new theatrical distribs including Cloudburst Entertainment, which focuses on films “that showcase the brightness of the human spirit,” are aiming for wide theatrical releases.

Limelight president Dylan Sellers has already reaped the benefits of cable and streamers. The producer landed this year’s record-breaking Sundance sale (the Andy Samberg-led comedy “Palm Springs”) to Hulu and Neon for around $22 million. A film he’d hoped to premiere in Toronto, the Melissa McCarthy-led dramedy “The Starling,” sold to Netflix for around $20 million based off footage and a script after the pandemic put its completion date and a theatrical run into question.

“I am investing a lot of money on the theory that, if people were hungry at Sundance, wait until next Sundance when there’s been nothing produced in the last year,” Sellers says.

Naomi Watts, who’s held producer titles since 2004’s “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” is open to all distribution options, and hopes for the best in Toronto.

“Everything’s a question mark,” Watts says. “Just getting out of bed every day it feels like, ‘Oh, so how’s this going to work?’ And is it risky? We won’t know until we try.”