Last year’s Toronto Film Festival started slow for acquisitions, but finished with a flurry of modest distribution deals that served notice the specialty film business had finally pulled out of its nosedive. This year’s festival hasn’t started and already there are fireworks. Deadline broke news yesterday that Harvey Weinstein would start a VOD business, making the acquisitions market for fringe films more competitive; and last night, I heard that a bidding battle had already broken out for the Steve McQueen-directed Shame, which should be sold by the time it screens Sunday. Fox Searchlight is the favorite, Sony Pictures Classics is in the mix and I’ve heard that The Weinstein Company is hovering. Bidding began right after its Telluride screening, and the mid-six figures thrown around yesterday will probably go higher. That’s huge, considering the movie is an unabashed NC-17, McQueen has final cut, and the sex-obsessed protagonist is unlikable. Oh, yeah, and the sellers want it released this year for Oscar consideration to capitalize on Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan’s Oscar-caliber performances.
Does this mean we’re in for a drunken buying frenzy? Hardly, buyers tell me. They are eager to see the films, but say there’s no title here that’s going to guarantee somebody will overpay. They are also mindful that many of last year’s deals turned out to be box office busts. More deals will be made than were struck at 2010 Toronto, but buyers lament the fact that the most coveted festival films, like The Ides of March, are spoken for. As for the finished films that are available, buyers are saying, “Show me.”
“It’s not going to be Cannes, by any stretch of the imagination,” said one buyer. “We’re coming in with a healthy dose of skepticism, though we are all looking for that gem. If we find that truly exceptional film that has a chance for breakout success, we’ll all bid. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there is anything here that fits that bill. Also, a lot of the new buyers who helped make Cannes and Sundance competitive have extended themselves. They have to honor the commitments they already made and if those pictures don’t work, some of them may be in trouble.”
At Cannes, deal making went through the roof, mostly coming from titles like The Iron Lady that were sold on the basis of teaser footage that whipped buyers into a frenzy. The deal volume and numbers paid actually made that festival seem more brisk than last January’s Sundance, which ended with 38 deals and had more follow the festival’s close. Cannes was different; the product had enough stars and commercial premises to entice the wide release distributors like FilmDistrict, Open Road, The Weinstein Company, Summit and Lionsgate to lock down, sight-unseen, films they feel can play on 2000 screens or more.
Some of that Cannes spirit could be conjured up if rumors are true that numerous high profile projects get shopped for domestic distribution at Toronto based on promo reels and scripts. Those possibilities include Broken City, the Allen Hughes-directed drama that has Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe set to star; Heroes of Nanjing, the Zhang Yimou-directed period epic that stars Christian Bale; the Stephen Frears-directed Lay the Favorite, which stars Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Vince Vaughn and Catherine-Zeta Jones; and the Hark Tsui-directed Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D, which aside from a cool title, is Hark’s first 3D effort.
But Toronto isn’t really the place for that and it’s possible the hard sell on those projects will wait till AFM. As for the menu of finished films playing the festival, buyers certainly have to be aware of how poorly last year’s crop of films fared. There was one breakout hit and that came right after the Midnight Madness premiere of the James Wan-directed Insidious. After an all night bargaining session, FilmDistrict’s Peter Schlessel walked away with the film under his arm after pledging a P&A commitment in the $5 million range. It was the first big deal that he and Bob Berney made after forming the label, and they hit the jackpot on their first pull of the slot wheel as the film grossed $54 million domestic and $92 million worldwide. Beyond that, other successes were modest. Sarah’s Key, which The Weinstein Company bought at the start of the festival, grossed $5.2 million, and $18.7 worldwide; Beginners, which Focus acquired for a P&A commitment in the $2 million range, grossed $5.8 million domestic, and $12 million worldwide. From there, it was a slippery slope; Rabbit Hole grossed $2.3 million; the $25 million budget Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator, acquired by Roadside Attractions with a seven-figure P&A commitment, grossed $11.5 million; the Will Ferrell film Everything Must Go, which Roadside Attractions bought for around $3 million, turned in a $2.7 million gross. Some deals were embarrassing: the Mickey Rourke-Megan Fox-starrer Passion Play grossed $3,699; Super, which sold to IFC after a raucous midnight screening, grossed $324,000; Peep World grossed $11,238; Meet Monica Velour grossed $33,000, and Every Day grossed $46,000. Some of those films had ancillary life that made those final numbers look better, but c’mon.
This doesn’t mean buyers won’t spend. Most of the films haven’t been pre-screened, a smart gambit by sellers who want buyers in a theater where a film plays through the roof, and suddenly there is a bidding battle. But it’s a festival and not a market, and organizers certainly aren’t making it easy on the buying crowd. “Saturday is going to be murder for all of us,” said one buyer. “There is a 6:15 start time for Burning Man, a 7 PM start time for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 8 PM start for The Oranges, 9:30 for Take This Waltz, and then a 10 PM start for Rampart. It’s going to be difficult for buying teams to see more than two of those, even if we split up. And these are the acquisition titles that seem most promising. Will sales agents be pressured to hold private screenings, and will some titles sell before key decision makers get a chance to see them? It’s going to be an interesting evening.”
Here are the acquisition titles considered most promising to buyers I spoke with:
* Friends With Kids: The Jennifer Wesfeldt-directed film has on paper the most commercial premise (close-knit friends whose relationships change when they all have children) and it’s the first major title to screen, which could set a tone for acquisitions of other titles. It also has an ensemble cast that includes Bridesmaids‘ Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, as well as Adam Scott and Megan Fox. Cinetic Media and Red Granite are selling, and the first screening is Friday night, 6 PM at the Ryerson.
* The Oranges: The Julian Farino-directed comedy stars Hugh Laurie, Leighten Meester, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney and Adam Brody. It’s about two families who live across the street and whose friendship is tested when the prodigal daughter of one clan falls not for the prodigal son of the other, but rather for her father’s best friend. Skeptics note the film was finished some time ago but buyers said they liked the premise and cast. CAA and Film Nation are selling it, and the first screening is Saturday, 8 PM at the Wintergarden.
*360: The relationship drama has an undeniable pedigree, directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Peter Morgan. It also has a killer cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Ben Foster. A modernized version of Arthur Schnitzler’s classic La Ronde, film examines what happens when people from varied social classes have sexual encounters in and outside of those classes. Is it too rareified to be commercial? UTA and Wild Bunch rep the film, with the first screening 9 PM at the Elgin.
* Salmon Fishing In The Yemen: The Lasse Hallstrom-directed drama stars Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas. A fisheries scientist is hired by an Arab sheik to introduce British salmon to the wadis of the Yemen. An impossible task becomes a life changing endeavor. UTA and Lionsgate International are selling and the first screening is Saturday, 7 PM at Princess of Wales.
*Rampart: The film has a potentially commercial theme, a director on the rise in Oren Moverman, and a solid cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ben Foster and Ice Cube. Set in 1990s LA, the drama about an LAPD cop whose past has put him in the center of a corruption scandal. WME and Sierra Affinity are selling, and the first screening is Saturday, 10 PM At Princess of Wales.
*Take This Waltz: Buyers are high on it because they see potential in its director, Sarah Polley. Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman star in a story of a married woman trying to decide between her husband and a charming young man she has just met. TF1 is selling and the first screening is Saturday, September 10 at 9:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall.
*Burning Man: the Jonathan Teplitzky-directed drama stars Matthew Goode in the story of an incorrigible father and his son’s journey back to happiness. CAA and Filmbox are selling the film. The first screening is Saturday 6:15 PM at Bell Lightbox 1.
*Dark Horse: Todd Solondz-directed drama that stars Justin Bartha, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow and Chris Walken. Two over-30 people, who won’t grow up, fall in love. Ted Hope is selling U.S. rights with Goldcrest, which is handling international sales, and the first screening (for press) is Saturday 3 PM at Scotiabank.
*The Deep Blue Sea: The Terence Davies-directed drama stars Rachel Weisz as a woman leading a privileged life in 1950s London as the wife of a high court judge. To the shock of all, she dumps him for a young former RAF pilot. Protagonist is selling, and the first screening is Sunday, 9:15 PM at Bell Lightbox 1.
*Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding: The Bruce Beresford-directed film stars Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Sundance “It” girl Elizabeth Olsen, Chace Crawford and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a comedy about an uptight Gotham lawyer who brings her teenagers to her hippie mom’s farmhouse for a vacation. CAA and Voltage are selling and the first screening is Tuesday, 6:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall.
*Ten Year: The Jamie Linden-directed comedy revolves around a group of friends who get together for a high school reunion. The cast is attractive: Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson, Justin Long, Kate Mara, Anthony Mackie and Chris Pratt. Paradigm and Voltage are selling, and the first screening is Monday, 9 PM at the Ryerson.
*Violet & Daisy: The directorial debut of Oscar-winning Precious scribe Geoffrey Fletcher, the film stars Saorise Ronan, Alexis Bledel, James Gandolini, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Danny Trejo. It’s a brutal fable about a pair of teen assassins who take a straightforward assignment and find the target isn’t who they expected. CAA is selling and the first screening is Thursday, 6 PM at the Elgin.
*The Lady: Director Luc Besson is usually money in an action setting, but here he focuses on Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader in the pro-democracy movement in Burma who is forced into house arrest for 15 years. Michelle Yeoh plays her. Europacorp is selling and the first screening for press is Monday, 8:30 AM at Scotiabank 4.
*Lovely Molly: Perhaps the best opportunity to discover gems is in the Midnight Madness section, and Lovely Molly bears watching if only because the director Eduardo Sanchez, co-helmed The Blair Witch Project. It’s about a newlywed whose return to her long abandoned childhood unlocks horrific childhood memories and stars a descent into evil. The film first screens for press on Sunday, 9:30 PM at Bell Lightbox 4.
If I’ve left anybody’s film out, I’ll update throughout the festival.