The sales market at the Toronto Film Festival was the healthiest and most vigorous that I can remember, certainly since that barren year when the prestige film bubble burst and the sole festival sale was the Tom Ford-directed A Single Man. During the first five days at least of this Toronto, there was deal action going into the wee hours of the morning. One quality, crowd-pleasing acquisition title after another un-spooled each night and then distributors were left trying to restrain themselves from going past their sober revenue projections as they tried to fill holes in 2014 slates.
At last count, around 28 Toronto films have sold in deals large and small, agents tell me. I thought the biggest challenge for sellers would be to get distributors to focus because of the inordinate amount of titles they launched into the Oscar race with lavish Toronto premieres. Instead, the biggest challenge for sellers, and buyers for that matter, was stamina. We are all getting older, and pretty much everyone was walking around like zombies after taking part Friday and Saturday in the fest’s biggest deals—Focus paying $7 million for world rights to the Jason Bateman-directed comedy Bad Words, and The Weinstein Company paying $7 million and $20 million in P&A for U.S. rights to the John Carney-directed Can A Song Save Your Life?
Dare I say that Toronto was the first seller’s market in as long as I can remember? I asked the top agents at the three most prolific deal making agencies if that was true. None of them were cocky enough to use the “S” word, but all three of them said they expect to clear their considerable inventories by the end of next week. Even if nothing got done until the time everyone but insomniacs are asleep.
“You’ll stay up all night, every night of the festival if it helps these films you’ve been living with so long get an opportunity to find an audience and pay back their investors,” said WME Global head Graham Taylor. “These filmmakers spend years of their lives on these things, so you can remind yourself it’s for a good cause. It’s not like we were staying up for keggers.”
The morning following each auction sure left me feeling like I’d been involved in a keg party. When you cover the deal making at these festivals, it means dozing and struggling to stay awake so you can periodically stalk everyone involved, in hopes of an update email or text. There were so many buyers and agents involved in the auction for Can A Song Save Your Life? that it wasn’t worth even trying to sleep Saturday night. That was one of only two movies I saw in Toronto (because of the high deal volume and covering the surprise ouster of Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson, hours after he presided over the Toronto premiere of Rush). With Carney’s followup to Once, you could see instantly it was going to be a long night, just from the audience reaction and the speed with which buyers exited the theater to figure out how much the film was worth. Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight, CBS Films and The Weinstein Company engaged quickly. Some scrambled to get Carney’s attention at the after-party, and they all bid aggressively. The sellers probably could have gotten more upfront, but $7 million is hardly chump change and the P&A commitment and release plan was the priority. Add that to the persuasive wooing of Harvey Weinstein, who came to Toronto with a big momentum edge for anyone thinking they had a breakout film; his acquisition title The Butler was nearing the $100 million domestic gross mark, and investors are looking at 8-figure profits. That is the dream for anyone bankrolling a prestige film.
I spent all evening updating the horse race, not going to sleep until daylight, when it was clear TWC had won the title for a fall 2014 release. By the time I awoke a few hours later, the trades had caught up and part of me wondered if it was me who got too caught up, staying up to break news for people who were asleep. Compared to my well-rested competition, I staggered through the rest of the fest like an extra in The Walking Dead.
All three of the major agencies, CAA, UTA and WME had a hand in the auction for the Carney-directed film and a lot of others. They co-repped some deals together and with other agencies, but UTA expects to sell all six of the films they repped. WME expects to close 12, and CAA a whopping 18. It seemed initially that Bad Words and the Carney film had sucked all the oxygen out of the market that first weekend, but buyers rallied.
“We knew going in that those two titles were going to command a lot of buyer attention, but once we sold them, it opened things up,” said CAA’s Roeg Sutherland. “Once they realized they weren’t getting those films,buyers were able to refocus their attention other strong titles. In previous festivals, people often play it calm and sometimes there are no sales until Monday. This pace was relentless, from the festival launch through Tuesday.”
Why were things so robust?
“This was an exceptional festival in terms of films, and it also reflected a maturing market place where it is possible to serve financiers seeking more upfront money as well as those who are willing to take an economic risk on performance,” said WME’s Taylor. “The VOD, multi-platform area is maturing and means real money now, and there is flexibility on windows that didn’t used to be there. The discussion becomes, if a movie is not a wide release, is a pre-theatrical VOD release best, or a platform strategy that could lead to a wider release, or a short window before exploiting the digital release? That’s an ongoing game being played now, with some theaters now playing ball and being flexible on giving screens to multi-platform pictures, and others still requiring a four-wall release strategy.”
CAA’s Sutherland and Micah Green said the strong casts and name directors of the Toronto movies is a strong indicator that the prestige market is healthy and likely to stay that way.
“You look back five years when this business bottomed out, and good movies were selling for six-figure advances,” Green said. “That was unsustainable, and we could have crippled the financing business because there was no clear way for film financiers to make money. The increased growth in ancillary has afforded a dependable revenue model for distributors, which in turn has increased their available capital for acquisition and P&A. There is a strong sales market again, and financiers and optimistic distributors know they can make money off of well packaged movies. Right now, there are far more distributors and slots than there are quality films. Demand exceeds supply.”
CAA’s Sutherland added that just because the pendulum has swung back toward the seller, that doesn’t mean buyers are spending drunkenly, something that clearly contributed to the crash when studio-backed prestige shingles overspent and fled a business where the most effective practitioners squeeze every nickel and only turn a buck out of these fragile films if they are willing to work their tails off. Most of the deals for theatrical-minded films was in the $2 million range.
“Since those days, a big difference is the way producers, directors and actors have readjusted their expectations in the way they make these movies,” Sutherland said. “You can make a film like The Railway Man with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, and sell North American rights for $2 million and call it a win. The domestic distributor is limiting their risk and able to spend the money on getting the movie seen. As long as distributors make money, there will remain a market, and a healthy ecosystem that can continue.”
How do the makers of a film like The Railway Man profit from such a tiny North American sale, relative to total budget? Talent is now accustomed to taking the risk ride with investors, and they make passion projects for little upfront money. Another benefit for that film was shooting overseas.
“It was a European co-production, and right now there is so much soft money out of Europe it is making it possible to cover the great majority of your risk,” Sutherland said. “The system is designed differently than in the U.S., where you get money from a state if you shoot there. There are far more favorable incentives in England, France and Germany, where you can go make a movie for $15 million to $20 million that would be limited to $6 million to $8 million in the U.S. That is why all these epic dramas are being made overseas, and why it puts little pressure on financiers to make a big domestic sale. The financiers can afford to bet on the domestic theatrical performance because much of their financial risk has been covered through foreign presales and these incentives.”
While I can fantasize about a future where buyers and sellers mature to the point they can make deals in time for us all to show up for the blue plate special, all-nighters will continue to be the cost of doing business at Toronto and Sundance, and sleep deprivation is the shrapnel.
“This all night stuff is not a gimmick,” said UTA’s Rena Ronson, who with Rich Klubeck and their team burned the midnight oil with the Carney film, Michael Dowse’s The F Word and The Sacrament, among others. “That time of night is really the only opportunity to get a complicated deal done. Earlier in the evening, every buyer is in two screenings, playing divide and conquer with their acquisition teams. The only clear time to concentrate is after the midnight slot. The pace of the deal is dictated by the movie. With Can A Song Save Your Life?, it started soon as we walked out the door. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a film have such a powerful impact on buyers as that one did. One buyer actually left the screening after, because he couldn’t get it out of his mind and had to have it. And he didn’t get it.
“There were so many quality, upbeat films at this festival, and not a lot of downbeat ones, and that helped,” Ronson said. “It reinforces that the independent route is as viable as any. Can A Song Save Your Life? came out of turnaround from a studio and look how it was prized. Budgets are getting more significant, though they are still reasonable. VOD has really helped open up this world. Five years ago, you would put down zero for the U.S. ancillary column, in terms of money a financier could count on if the film didn’t break through theatrically. After Arbitrage and Margin Call, the risk is less and they are no longer afraid.”