Toronto International Film Festival 2012 PreviewAs the Canadians here like to say, it’s time to drop the puck on the Toronto Film Festival. Things get underway with this evening’s premiere of the Rian Johnson-directed Looper, but the dealmaking crowd is already into things. I’ve heard there is some action on Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (which played Telluride), and Eli Roth’s genre film Aftershock.

Beyond the finished films, there is also potential action on upcoming films that are being shown to buyers through promos. Those include the Ralph Fiennes-directed The Invisible Woman with Fiennes, Felicity Jones and Kristen Scott Thomas; Long Walk To Freedom, an Idris Elba-starrer about Nelson Mandela’s first term as president after the fall of apartheid in South Africa; the Susanne Bier-directed Serena with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper; and the Bong Joon-ho-directed Snow Piercer with Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton.

SEE PART II: Fest Films With Highest Wanna-see From Buyers: Mike Fleming On 2012 Toronto

Besides the deal volume, by the time most of the buyers and sellers leave here next week, not only should there be a wealth of sales, but also a much clearer picture of the Oscar race, which so far has no frontrunner at all.

A festival that always ranks high among distribution executives and agents — the city is so damn pleasant and is a great place to watch movies — this particular Toronto will be likely front-loaded with deals for theatrical-release films with casts that have buyers fairly salivating. And the burgeoning multiplatform business makes it a good bet that anything worth watching will get snapped up at some point or other. Also helping matters is that enough films that were set up in an independent construct succeeded well enough to have whetted appetites for more. Films brought up by buyers and sellers were the Wes Anderson-directed Moonrise Kingdom (which has grossed over $44 million) and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Magic Mike. While the latter seems an odd example considering it was released by Warner Bros, the film speaks to the promise of what can happen when things succeed. (See below how last year’s Toronto-sold films fared at the box office.)

Channing Tatum and Soderbergh decided to finance that $6.5 million film themselves. It was a smart gamble. Even though the story was somewhat dark, they knew they would fill the cast with hunks and that an audience would turn out for what could be marketed as an infomercial for 8 Minute Abs. Castmates like Matt Bomer and Matthew McConaughey signed on for little upfront money and they all became investors in the film. Word is those guys will wind up with $5 million paydays, and that Tatum and Soderbergh will make a fortune for their risk. They sold international for around $14.5 million, and then sold U.S. to Warner Bros for $7.5 million. The film has so far grossed north of $150 million worldwide. This should feather Soderbergh’s nest in retirement (believe it or not, there was a de facto retirement party for him earlier this week).

Related: Toronto Film Festival 2012: ‘Looper,’ ‘Argo,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ Highlight 60+ Films

Buyers and sellers I’ve spoken to are still debating how to walk away from Toronto with some films under their arms, but not overpaying. Every buyer I spoke with mentioned the razor-thin margins under which most of these films operate. They are also still very divided over the merits of the multiplatform release strategy that many of them are now operating. “So Bachelorette hit number one on iTunes,” said one distributor who sees VOD as an option only for films that don’t warrant the P&A spend. “Weinstein paid $2 million for that film, and if they made a few hundred thousand dollars, will enough theaters be willing to play the film to make it meaningful?”

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While The Weinstein Company dove into the multiplatform waters launching TWC Radius with Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, other established distributors are being more circumspect. Fox Searchlight co-presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula are still focused on theatrical, but gave multiplatform a test run earlier this year with The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. “It was our first foray and it wasn’t a huge success, but we are starting to get mechanisms in place so that we can participate in that marketplace as we see appropriate,” Utley told me. “Other players have proven there is definitely a business there. It hasn’t been a focus of our primary business, but it’s something we’ve got on a back burner with the potential to develop it for the future.”

On paper, each of the major agencies has brought some high-caliber films, in the sense that good casts give them the chance to play in wide release. CAA’s Roeg Sutherland and Micah Green said this is not an accident but rather a result of the agency getting to be at the center of putting together films where the filmmaker is the catalyst.

“This is the result of a process,” Green said. “Studios making fewer films has allowed us to facilitate independent packaging and financing of films in a process that is director driven, with high-end filmmakers and talent. Whether they end up being picked up by studios or independents, the process is different than when a studio picked the script and then hired a director and talent. That’s not our process now, it’s more about listening to what our clients think and responding to it and putting movies together. High end movies that are enjoying this resurgence of quality in the wide release side of the business.“

He cited tonight’s opening-night premiere, Looper, as a prime example. “Rian Johnson wrote that movie, and no one paid him to do it. We helped him put it together with talent, financing and distribution. It has become a big film, but it is his film, the one he wanted to make, exactly the way he wanted to make it. Same thing with David Ayer and End Of Watch. Same with Andrew Dominik’s movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie, the John Hillcoat movie.” Said Sutherland: “We don’t have to use the festivals to sell our big movies anymore.” Still, they will be looking for deals on films that include Derek Cianfrance’s A Place Beyond The Pines, the Robert Redford-starrer The Company You Keep and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.

The CAA dealmakers feel that between the films they orchestrated that are playing Sundance with distribution, and the ones for sale, this is their strongest Toronto ever. UTA counterparts Rich Klubeck and Rena Ronson have a similarly strong slate they have been involved in since early on, and same with WME Global’s Graham Taylor.

When it comes to stirring the pot for acquisitions, it has always played out that when Harvey Weinstein is hungry for films to add to his slate, all buyers get more aggressive. That could happen this year, said his COO David Glasser.

“We’ve always got a strong appetite, and our fall slate reflects that,” Glasser said. “We’ve got Django Unchained, The Master, Killing Them Softly, the Dustin Hoffman-directed The Quartet, Sapphires, The Silver Linings Playbook and Lawless.” Glasser said that Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook were homegrown, but the rest were acquisitions. “This will be a very interesting festival for finished product, which we’re all going to see, along with some great early promos for films that can be bought. We’ve had great success buying stuff in an early phase. And while there are pictures coming down the road like Django Unchained, Lincoln and Les Miserables, there is enough here that Toronto will provide a nice early barometer of the Oscar race.”

Weinstein — like Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, CBS Films and several others — already has a strong Oscar-season slate and a lot of their time will be spent here showing Oscar-bait films. While Fox Searchlight has become known for slipping in a late fest-bought Oscar contender like The Wrestler and most recently Shame, most distributors feel late 2012 is filled to capacity with adult-themed films, and they are looking to fill 2013 slots.

Here are how some of last year’s Toronto acquisitions translated at the box office:

Film Mkt Year Distributor Price Rights Dom Rel Dom BO
360 Tor 2011 Magnolia Pictures 8/3/12 $100,000
4:44 Last Day on Earth Tor 2011 IFC Films N.Am. 3/23/12 $17,801
Americano Tor 2011 MPI Media Group N.Am. 4/21/12
Asylum Blackout (fka The
Tor 2011 IFC Midnight N.Am. 5/4/12
Awakening, The Tor 2011 Cohen Media Group US 8/10/12
Day, The Tor 2011 WWE 7-figure US 8/17/12
Deep Blue Sea, The Tor 2011 Music Box Films US 3/23/12 $1,117,948
Enter Nowhere Tor 2011 Lionsgate/Grindstone N.Am.
Friends With Kids Tor 2011 Roadside/Lionsgate $2,000,000 US 3/9/12 $7,251,073
God Bless America Tor 2011 Magnet/Magnolia Pictures WW 5/11/12 $122,550
Goon Tor 2011 Magnet/Magnolia Pictures $2,000,000 US 2/24/12 $4,168,528
Hysteria Tor 2011 Sony Pictures 5/18/12 $1,725,118
Intruders Tor 2011 Millenium Entertainment N.Am. 3/30/12 $69,136
Killer Joe Tor 2011 Liddell Entertainment $4,000,000 US 7/27/12 $37,900
Lady, The Tor 2011 Cohen Media Group US 4/13/12
Neil Young Journeys Tor 2011 Sony Pictures Classics WW, excl. Lat.Am. 6/29/12 $111,966
Oranges, The Tor 2011 ATO Pictures $500,000 N.Am.
Raid: Redemtion, The (fka The
Tor 2011 Sony Pictures US 3/23/12 $4,105,187
Rampart Tor 2011 Millenium Entertainment $2,000,000 US 2/10/12 $972,512
Salmon Fishing in Yemen Tor 2011 CBS Films $5,000,000 US 3/9/12 $9,047,981
Shame Tor 2011 Fox Searchlight $350,000 US 12/2/11 $3,909,002
Ten Year Tor 2011 Anchor Bay low 7‑figure US
This Is Not a Film Tor 2011 Palisades Tartan US & UK 2/29/12 $67,868
Trishna Tor 2011 Sundance Selects/IFC N.Am. 7/13/12 $158,072
Where Do We Go Now? Tor 2011 Sony Pictures Classics US 5/11/12 $509,675
Wuthering Heights Tor 2011 Oscilloscope N.Am.
Your Sister’s Sister Tor 2011 IFC Films $500,000 N.Am. & Lat.Am. 6/29/12 $1,597,486
You’re Next Tor 2011 Lionsgate $1,500,000 US and Can.