As the Toronto Film Festival gets underway, the shifting fortunes of distribution systems and players on the board has longtime observers scratching their heads over what kind of acquisition market this will be. For one thing, the premieres that would most likely follow with big distribution deals like Freeheld, the Rathergate drama Truth, the Tom Hardy-starrer Legend, or The Room, well, they were already pre-bought in substantial deals. Many of the films that would have buyers salivating here sold in May during the Cannes Film Festival when films just flew off the shelf.
“There are big movies here that could get the kind of money paid in the past for Can A Song Save Your Life or Top Five, but unfortunately, this year, those movies all have distribution,” said a dealmaker who bets most of this year’s deals will be low-seven-figure range because of the lack of a must-have title.
Pre-buying distribution, based on a sizzle reels or talent-attached scripts, is becoming more and more commonplace for distributors who seem to prefer taking that leap and having some say in the creative process, than instead viewing a finished film in a dark room full of buyers. It only takes two of them to catch festival fever and suddenly, you are faced with committing to minimum guarantees and P&A spends that could leave you struggling to recoup. The wrinkle is that while pre-buying is commonplace at Berlin and Cannes, it’s a newish phenomenon in Toronto.
So while buyers will be out in force tonight to see if there will be volatile election-year sparks from Michael Moore’s latest polemic docu Where To Invade Next (the official opening film Demolition was scooped up by Fox Searchlight), they expect to at least have conversations about numerous films that aren’t playing here in any official capacity. Buyers tell me that will likely include Florence Foster Jenkins, the Stephen Frears-directed film that stars Meryl Streep as the New York heiress who, despite her cats-are-being-strangled voice, spends her way to prominence as an opera singer, as loyal acolytes (Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg) try their best to make sure she doesn’t hear the snickers and scorn from her highfalutin social peers. Another is The Last Face, the Sean Penn-directed film that stars Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron, about a doctor in a war-torn African nation forced to choose between his love for an American relief worker or saving lives. Or Our Kind Of Traitor, the Ewan McGregor- and Damien Lewis-starrer about a British couple whose secret mission puts them in the crosshairs of the Russian mob. Or the Michael Apted-directed action film Unlocked, with Noomi Rapace. Or Oppenheimer Strategies with Richard Gere, Michael Sheen and Steve Buscemi. There should also be conversations about movies nearing production starts, like the James Ponsoldt-directed The Circle with Tom Hanks. There’s no pressure to make deals on any of these films, but that seemed to be the case on Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals at Cannes, until Peter Schlessel bought world rights for Universal for a whopping $20 million.
As for the official acquisition titles, buyers tell me they are focused on a handful of films including the Florian Gallenberger-directed Daniel Bruhl- and Emma Watson-starrer Colonia; the Gavin Hood-directed Eye In The Sky with Helen Mirren; the Jason Bateman-directed The Family Fang with Bateman and Nicole Kidman; the Rebecca Miller-directed Maggie’s Plan with Julianne Moore, Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke; and the Drake Doremus-directed Equals with Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult. There are Midnight titles that include the Sharlto Copley-starrer Hardcore, and The Devil’s Candy. And there is a lot of room this year for the surprise movie that plays especially well in the room and sparks bidding.
The pool of buyers has taken some intriguing twists this year, but the end result is there are so many that need movies that all the good product here is expected to sell. Sure, Relativity hit the Chapter 11 rocks, but most sellers I spoke with said that company never rose to a level of importance in the acquisition ecosystem. The films they did buy, like the Sundance pic The Bronze, become cautionary tales about making sure that the company you sell to will be solvent nine months later when it is time to market and release your film.
Some skeptics point to the underperforming Sundance acquisitions Dope and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl as good reasons to be cautious, but the fact is that the prestige film space is doing pretty well and newcomers have given signs they are capable of working these movies into successes. That includes A24’s Ex Machina, Broad Green’s A Walk In The Woods, and STX’s The Gift, to name just a few. Look at the job that Roadside Attractions did with Mr. Holmes, an unlikely success that has grossed north of $16 million. Upstart companies like EuropaCorp need product for its RED pipeline that just opened. Beyond that, the streaming services Netflix and Amazon are growing ever more ambitious, tempting sellers to go with a lucrative alternative to the traditional theatrical or multiplatform release model. This doesn’t even factor in Apple, which has just begun mobilizing to become a player in original film production and acquisitions to fuel its Apple TV. All of these entities are better capitalized than most of the prestige theatrical distributors and are willing to pay exorbitant prices for statement buys that don’t have to be justified on a movie to movie basis. The deals with Netflix remove risk and seem a viable alternative to a VOD release and a small theatrical launch, which is the future of many of these festival films. If Moore’s documentary doesn’t end up with the theatrical bang of Fahrenheit 9/11, it could still garner a big number from either Amazon or Netflix.
While the streaming services seemed like a dicey prospect for festival features only a year ago, Netflix’s first major theatrical acquisition, the Cary Fukunaga-directed Beasts Of No Nation is playing Toronto after a stop in Telluride. The helmer said it’s being accorded the same respect as anything else here.
“People have picked up and run with the idea that the option of seeing a movie in the cinema will become less profitable the fewer people show up,” he said. “I didn’t design this for anything other than the theatrical experience, so the aim was for this to be a real film. The nice thing is that critics and people who see it are embracing it as a movie, not a streaming movie, and they are saying that it should be seen in a movie theater, which is high praise.”
I ask Fukunaga how he felt, being on the other side of what had to be an agonizing prospect for himself and his film’s backers: make a traditional deal that might result in a small theatrical showing — the movie, about the initiation of a child soldier in Africa, is sober stuff — or making the Netflix deal, which will allow for more than enough theaters to qualify for awards, but also brings that movie to a potential audience of 65 million or more Netflix subscribers all over the globe.
“This is the exact conversation my producers and I had when the deal was coming together,” Fukunaga said. “It is important for me for this film to be perceived as a theatrical, but there’s no denying the power and number of Netflix households. The amount of people that will ultimately see the film, with Netflix’s marketing muscle behind it, is huge. Prestige film distributors need to see results at the box office quickly to keep that movie in theaters. Netflix just has a completely different model.”
Good news for sellers came with yesterday’s revelation that David Glasser will stay another three years as The Weinstein Company’s COO/president six weeks after resigning and close to taking a job to launch DreamWorks Animation into the live-action space or to start a company with hedge fund money. Co-chairman Bob Weinstein told me that as result of Glasser staying, he and Harvey Weinstein are preparing to sign new deals, and their board of directors has promised to loosen up the purse strings that had been a lingering question. If they see a movie they love, Weinstein said, they will be as aggressive as ever. This is the same company that bought the John Carney film Can A Song Save Your Life for $7 million a couple festivals ago. When they are spending, it seems to stimulate festival dealmaking.
Buyers say, as they always do coming in, they are determined to be judicious and disciplined and not falling victim to festival fever. It seems to happen at every festival. Toronto crowds love movies and sometimes these premieres play through the roof. It skews judgment. Like when everyone came out of a premiere of the Chris Rock-directed Top Five that attendees said played “like a rock concert,” and went right into bidding. By the end, Paramount bought it for around $15 million. Now, the studio was light on its own productions and needed a film and could absorb the P&A needed for a wide release. If it made money at the end of the day with a $25 million total gross, it was minimal. A major studio can bear that, but prestige distributors cannot.