Hollywood runs on perception, and the vibe on the recently completed Toronto Film Festival is that the marketplace was a smashing success because of the high volume of acquisitions. The festival itself reported there were 29 major sales to U.S. distributors.
While the sales volume was certainly high, the numbers weren’t. It’s like reading about the record per screen average that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master turned in last weekend on five theaters. All I keep thinking is, even though it grossed $729,745 in its opening weekend, the film needs serious legs if its going to recoup the $35 million that Annapurna’s Megan Ellison paid to finance it.
Coming in to Toronto, two things were very clear. The most promising films came in with distributors that bought in early in the process, a trend which will continue to grow as agencies package more of these films, seeded by high net worth individuals and receptive to locking in distributors at script or sizzle reel stage.
That took some of the best titles off the table, but it still felt like the abundance of new distributors and star-cast acquisition titles would result in some spirited auctions, the kind that make people overpay. That didn’t happen once during Toronto. What we got was a bunch of $2 million or less minimum guarantee deals for North American or U.S. rights. Maybe it came down to the fact that Harvey Weinstein wasn’t a factor in this festival marketplace. His brother was, as Bob Weinstein made arguably the biggest deal of the festival, paying $2 million each for the Eli Roth-produced genre films Aftershock and Clown. Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines had a higher minimum guarantee (still under $3 million), but Dimension guaranteed a wide release and there is a generous gross corridor deal on Roth’s fright films. Those pictures tend to do very well in the marketplace.
Harvey Weinstein, meanwhile, was content to use the festival to showcase his two Oscar bait films, The Master and Silver Linings Playbook. Even TWC’s year old multi-platform arm, Radius, was quiet. The wide release distribution companies FilmDistrict (Looper), Open Road (End Of Watch) and CBS Films (Seven Psychopaths) got to showcase their upcoming big titles, but the acquisition parts of those companies had pretty much packed up by the first weekend. Sony Pictures Classics bought a couple small titles, while trotting out its line of Oscar contenders that include the Marion Cotillard-starrer Rust And Bone. Fox Searchlight didn’t jump at anything, at least not so far. The shingle banged the gong on The Sessions, the Oscar-bait movie it paid $6 million to acquire at Sundance last January when it was titled The Surrogate. I don’t think the movie would have gotten nearly that much had it premiered as an acquisition title in Toronto half a year later.
“The lesson is that the market is back and the ecosystem is healthy,” one dealmaker told me. “There are buyers for the smaller movies that didn’t exist a year ago. But we are never going back to the place where those tiny films sell for $5 million.”
Now, the major agents came home happy because they sold almost all the films they crossed the border with. But the actual deals are telling us something about the economy of independent film making. If you are only going to be able to count on $2 million for U.S. rights, your budgets have be incredibly low if you plan to have any chance of making money for your backers.
Gone are the days when PTA or Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu or Terrence Malick could spend $20 million-$35 million on an auteur-driven indulgent independent film like The Master, Biutiful or Tree Of Life–unless there is a wealthy benefactor like Anderson had with Ellison. She allowed PTA to make essentially the same film that Universal rejected because the studio deemed it way too pricey for prestige fare.
After the Dimension deal got things started at Toronto, I figured Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines would break the bank, with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles. Maybe it was because Weinstein didn’t go after it, but the bids never got that high, and Focus Features stuck to its guns and got it for under $3 million. The other title that drew multiple bids, the Kristen Wiig-starrer Imogene, ended up with $2 million and it’s unclear if Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions will give the film a wide theatrical berth or a day and date VOD release. Many of the Toronto films that sold will test that multi-platform strategy, even though there is wide disagreement among distributors over its viability. Some tell me that it will always be the second class way to release a worthy film, and that it’s getting costlier: I’m told that AMC is now charging between $10,000 to $20,000 per week to rent screens in prime areas to ultra VOD distributors who are four-walling theatrical releases in the second part of the multi-platform rollout. Others deny the cost is that high.
The latest film to test that model has been Bachelorette, and AMC accounted for 31 of its initial 47 screens. If Radius-TWC is paying anywhere near those figures to keep Bachelorette in theaters, that certainly takes a bite out of the profits. But it made sense for that film, particularly considering that the picture more than covered its $3 million budget with a foreign deal around $3 million and another $2 million that TWC paid for domestic rights after the film premiered in Sundance last January. Radius co-heads Tom Quinn and Jason Janego told me during the festival that the film grossed $4 million before it opened in theaters.
The upshot is that because buyers didn’t overpay, the chances for a continuing indie resurgence is good. But for those wannabe indie mavericks who dream of bringing their films to a festival and leaving a millionaire, those days are long gone.