Was the 2011 Toronto Film Festival a good one for dealmaking? Even after organizers announced a 20% uptick in film deals last Friday (the festival includes foreign territories in its count), the sales kept coming. A long-expected deal with Lionsgate on the Jennifer Westfeldt-directed comedy Friends With Kids finally got done (in partnership with Roadside Attractions, which will actually release the film), and Music Box announced overnight it had acquired the Rachel Weisz-starrer The Deep Blue Sea. Lionsgate was hotly pursuing another film, the Midnight Madness sensation You’re Next, which of all the festival films seems to have the best chance of approaching the box office turned in by Toronto 2010’s breakout Insidious. There have been about 20 acquisitions so far and that many more could come in the next few weeks.
Still, can you call the Toronto acquisitions marketplace “solid” when no films have been bought so far by The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, or Fox Searchlight (yeah, I revealed that they bought Shame during Toronto, but it was a deal all but sealed in Venice), or for that matter FilmDistrict, Open Road or Relativity Media, each of which jumped into the distribution business to release films that can play on upwards of 2000 screens? Buyers and sellers said it was a pretty good festival at least. One filled with mostly small deals and a show of distributor discipline that is a positive sign for an indie film sector that just started pulling out of a nosedive this time last year.
I’m not sure what Friends With Kids cost (I’d heard low seven-figures when I first wrote Lionsgate was chasing it) or what You’re Next will bring, but at the festival close yesterday, the only certified multimillion-dollar deal by a distributor was CBS Films’ rumored $5 million-plus deal for the Lasse Hallstrom-directed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Some felt CBS Flms spent high, but new divisions often pay a premium when bidding against more established distribution rivals, and CBS Films needed a strong title with which to prove its mettle — and now it has a good one. Mickey Liddell (who last year acquired Biutiful) notched the other major multimillion-dollar deal with the William Friedkin-directed Killer Joe and will rent a distributor to put it out. And Luc Besson got his wish to have the performances of Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis showcased this Oscar season in a deal with upstart Cohen Media Group to distribute The Lady. It was clear money wasn’t a priority for Besson; he wanted an Oscar-qualifying berth and stateside release to go with the international release plans that his EuropaCorp have in place, and got it shortly after his film premiered.
Of the other films atop buyers’ lists, some were disappointing, buyers said; others played well, but had factors that left distributors questioning whether they warranted big P&A spends. That is always the trouble with acquiring finished films and underscored for buyers the importance of pre-buying rights before movies start shooting, where you can have some influence in what goes on the screen. Only a few pre-sale titles screened footage at Toronto, including the Derek Cianfrance-directed The Place Beyond The Pines with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. So far, no one has met the $4 million asking price for U.S. rights, but I bet they come close by AFM. Had the $15 million George Clooney-directed Gosling-starrer The Ides of March come to the festival without a distributor, several buyers told me an eight-figure bidding war for domestic rights could have resulted.
Distributors are used to evaluating the challenges of finished films playing for the first time at festivals. In the case of Shame, some balked at the demand they couldn’t change a frame and had to come out this year, but not Fox Searchlight, which will chase an Oscar for Michael Fassbender. In the case of Friends With Kids, some potential buyers told me they questioned the decision by Westfeldt to cast herself in the pivotal role alongside Jon Hamm, Adam Scott and Kristen Wiig. A few buyers told me they liked the premise and said it had crowd-pleasing laughs, but because Westfeldt isn’t an established star, it made the film more of a commercial risk. Lionsgate was in the mix early (Hamm is the cornerstone star of Lionsgate’s Mad Men), but it never turned into a real bidding war. Same with 360, which buyers found a challenge to market.
Festival organizers certainly didn’t make it easy on buyers or sellers by scheduling a nonstop barrage of the top acquisition titles that first Saturday. “I think the festival did this deliberately to create a frenzy atmosphere, but it only made all of our lives difficult,” said one vet. “You saw buyers coming and going in the middle of screenings of good movies, and a lot of movies had to be screened a second time. It didn’t help anybody.” I’ve heard the logjam occurred because sellers push festival organizers so hard to get prime Saturday berths, and festival organizers won’t tell them what they’re playing up against. Some said they will consider making better use of Friday or even that first Thursday, even though many acquisition execs are just arriving. Nobody thinks the top distribution execs will stay beyond Monday; they traditionally leave junior executives to watch end-of-fest premiere titles.
The lack of major distributors left the field to the boutiques, which pay smaller minimum guarantees and launch films in less sexy platform theatrical and premium VOD strategies. In an article on Magnolia’s 10th anniversary, co-owner Todd Wagner and co-founder Eamonn Bowles described how films from All Good Things to Two Lovers to obscure titles like The Oxford Murders and 13 Assassins routinely gross millions on “Utra VOD” outings, often dwarfing theatrical returns and requiring less P&A.
The festival was a good one for VOD buyers, and though the new division that former Magnolia execs Tom Quinn and Jason Janego are starting for The Weinstein Company hasn’t notched a sale yet, those executives were chasing films and could make some deals in the coming weeks. The VOD downside for filmmakers and actors is mainly ego: they miss the sizzle of theatrical P&A campaigns and TV and newspaper ads, even if that money spent isn’t cost-effective. Boutique distributors have been gobbling up Toronto titles as distributors like Magnolia and IFC have bought multiple festival films.
Because the casts are strong, there will be inevitable deals for films like the Oren Moverman-directed Rampart with Woody Harrelson, the Fernando Meirelles-directed 360 with Anthony Hopkins, the Sarah Polley-directed Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams, Violet & Daisy by Precious scribe Geoffrey Fletcher and genre titles like Lovely Molly by Blair Witch co-director Eduardo Sanchez. But you can bet none of those deals will break the bank, and the longer they take, the more leverage swings toward buyers.