Toronto 2016: Pre-Buys Prized As Festival Gets Underway

Groundswell Productions

The fact that the first major deal at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival is for a film that isn’t here — Focus Features won the untitled ’50s London fashion industry drama that Paul Thomas Anderson will direct with Daniel Day-Lewis — underscores how profoundly the independent theatrical acquisitions has turned toward pre-buys of film packages. Toronto has always been viewed as a terrific place for distributors to launch Oscar-season films, and to supplement their slates with acquisitions of finished films. Deals were sluggish last Toronto: STX made the splashiest deal for Hardcore Henry, Bleecker Street got the top earner in Eye In The Sky and Michael Moore’s docu Where To Invade Next was done in by his insistence on bypassing Netflix for a theatrical release and then being walloped by pneumonia and unable to promote it.

I am getting the impression that buyers are ready to be wowed, and that there will be several large deals either during the festival or right after. If I had any advice, it would be for buyers to consider extending their return trip if it means missing Birth Of The Dragon, which won’t be screened until 3 PM Tuesday at the Ryerson, and probably won’t last until subsequent screenings are set for L.A. I saw the picture, part fact and part fable about a legendary brawl that Bruce Lee fought against Shaolin master Wong Jack Man. The George Nolfi-directed film from Groundswell is a throwback to the spirit of Lee’s ’70s martial arts hits and has real breakout mainstream potential even if the most recognizable stars are the characters of Lee and Steve McQueen.

natalie portman as jackie

There will also likely be a quick deal for the Pablo Larrain-directed Jackie, the drama that stars Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy as she secures her husband’s legacy in the week following his assassination. The picture got exquisite reviews in its debut at the Venice Film Festival and offers are coming in. Buyers have been primed for the picture since Cannes when promo footage was shown, even though they didn’t bite back then.

That pre-buy restraint is changing. There are plenty of finished films here that are high on buyer lists, but don’t be surprised if some of the biggest sales come in unexpected places. All of the major agents — who preface festival conversations by counting all the pictures launching here that they packaged in pre-buy deals — tell me they’ve got a few plum projects in their pockets. Strong sales candidates not on the Toronto slate include The Leisure Seeker, the Paolo Virzi-directed romp that stars Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as a couple that takes an adventure in a Winnebago. Another is We Do Not Forget, the Zach Helm-directed drama that stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zachary Quinto in a fictionalized showdown between hacker activists and a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. Other promos buyers will see include the Danny Strong-directed JD Salinger drama Rebel In The Rye with Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey and Laura Dern starring. Others I’m hearing rumors of include the Fernando Trueba-directed The Queen Of Spain with Penelope Cruz.

Margot Robbie Tonya Harding Movie
Rex/Shutterstock/Associated Press

Other possible surprises could include packages like I, Tonya, the drama that will have Margot Robbie playing disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, with Craig Gillespie directing. That picture is looking like a real thing with financier Len Blavatnik circling, with shooting likely to start early next year. There are plenty more where that one came from.

Some reports have painted a picture of caution caused by the hardships facing the record-setting Sundance film The Birth of A Nation following Deadline’s revelation of a 17-year-old rape charge against filmmaker-star Nate Parker (he was acquitted). Buyers and agents don’t expect it to be a factor as they look for slate-filling films. The glare on Parker because of the circumstances of the incident and the subsequent suicide of the woman 12 years later certainly tarnishes the charmed Oscar track the picture was on, but it is a total anomaly. Distributors need quality product and seem willing to pay for it, as evidenced by the way Focus stepped up on the PTA-Day-Lewis film which constitutes roughly twice the financial outlay of Parker’s Sundance film.

The other area worth watching is Midnight Madness, where some of the most profitable genre titles are hatched. Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions president Steven Bersch reminds that finding those frightful gems isn’t easy. Bersch is riding high on the genre thriller Don’t Breathe, but the title of his Toronto experience ought to be Don’t Sleep.

“I remember when we bought Insidious,” he said. “It was my second or third Toronto, so I still had the energy, but this was my fifth midnight movie in a row, on a Tuesday night. The reason we got it is, everybody sent junior executives, but I dragged myself there. While everybody was sleeping, we were making a deal, with FilmDistrict doing domestic, and we closed at 6:10 in the morning. Everybody woke up hearing it was pretty good, but by then it was gone. We just announced Insidious 4, so it was worth it, but it isn’t easy.”

Here are the titles that buyers and sellers are most high on:

BIRTH OF THE DRAGON – Director: George Nolfi. Cast: Billy Magnussen, Xia Yu, Philip Ng.  Set against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1964, this cross-cultural biopic chronicles Bruce Lee’s emergence as a martial arts superstar after his legendary secret showdown with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man. Details of the fight staged in front of a handful of witnesses are still disputed, but it launched Lee’s star and cemented his legacy as the man who brought kung fu to the world.
1st Screening: Tuesday, September 13, 3 PM – Ryerson Theatre


COLOSSAL – Director: Nacho Vigalondo. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson. An aimless party girl discovers a mysterious connection between herself and a giant monster wreaking havoc on the other side of the globe.
1st Screening: Friday, September 9, 9 PM – Ryerson Theatre

JACKIE – Director: Pablo Larraín. Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt. After JFK is murdered, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.
1st Screening: Sunday, September 11th, 8:30 PM- Winter Garden Theatre

MAUDIE — Director: Aisling Walsh. Cast: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke. Fact-based tale of Maude Lewis, who overcame the physical challenge of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis to become one of Canada’s premier folk artists.
1st Screening: Monday, September 12, 5:30 PM – Visa Screening Room (Elgin)

MESSAGE FROM THE KING – Director: Fabrice Du Welz. Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Teresa Palmer, Luke Evans, Alfred Molina. Mysterious traveler from South Africa combs the Los Angeles underworld for those responsible for the death of his sister.
1st Screening: Thursday, September 8, 6 PM – Visa Screening Room (Elgin)

BRIMSTONE — Director: Martin Koolhoven. Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Kit Harington. A woman running from her past meets a zealot preacher and an outlaw along the way.

PARIS CAN WAIT – Director: Eleanor Coppola. Cast: Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard, Alec Baldwin. An American woman in a tired marriage finds herself on an unforeseen road trip from Cannes to Paris with a dashing Frenchman. A seven-hour drive unexpectedly becomes a whirlwind two-day road trip.
1st Screening: Monday, September 12, 1:45 PM – Winter Garden Theatre
Second Screening: Tuesday, September 13, 9:45 AM – Scotiabank 4

Jose Haro

THE PROMISE – Director: Terry George. Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale. Armenian medical student, an artist and an American journalist form a love triangle amid the genocide of Armenia perpetrated by Turkey during WWI.
1st Screening: Sunday, September 11, 9:30 PM – Roy Thomson Hall

THEIR FINEST – Director: Lone Scherfig. Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston. Period comedy-drama follows a group of filmmakers struggling to make an inspirational film to boost morale — and inspire America to join the war — during the London Blitz in World War II.
1st Screening: Sunday, September 11, 3:30 PM – Roy Thomson Hall

WAKEFIELD – Director: Robin Swicord. Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner. A successful lawyer and family man disappears from his own life and observes his baffled loved ones from a hiding place in the attic.
1st Screening: Friday, September 9, 9 AM – Scotiabank 4

ALL I SEE IS YOU – Director: Marc Forster. Cast: Blake Lively, Jason Clarke. Return to Monster’s Ball form for Forster. After a blind woman regains her sight, she and her husband begin discovering uncomfortable details about their marriage and their lives.
1st Screening: Saturday, September 10, 11 AM – Scotiabank 2

Director: John Scheinfeld.
1st Screening: Friday, September 9, 12:30pm — Tiff Bell Lightbox, Cinema 2

BARRY – Director: Vikram Ghandi. Cast: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ellar Coltrane. Set in the backdrop of a true story in 1981 New York City, young Barack Obama tries to find his way as a college student in a new city as he is faced with questions about race, culture, and identity in this inspiring drama centered on a crucial year in the future President’s life.
1st Screening: Saturday, September 10, 6 PM – Ryerson Theatre

CARRIE PILBY – Director: Susan Johnson. Cast: Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne, Vanessa Bayer, Jason Ritter. A brilliant young woman graduates Harvard at 18 but has no street sense and struggles in areas of morality, relationships, sex and leaving her New York City apartment.
1st Screening: Friday, September 9, 2 PM – Ryerson Theatre

CATFIGHT—Director: Onur Tukel. Cast: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Craig Bierko, Dylan Baker. A reunion between two old school friends sparks a no-holds-barred war of attrition
1st Screening: Friday, September 9, 6:15 PM – Ryerson Theatre

GOON: THE LAST OF THE ENFORCERS – Director: Jay Baruchel. Cast: Seann William Scott, Liev Schreiber. The original hockey brawler pic was a gem. Why not a sequel with Doug “The Thug” Glatt?
1st Screening: Sunday, September 11, 3 PM, Location TBD

THE HEADHUNTER’S CALLING – Director: Mark Williams. Cast: Gerard Butler, Alison Brie, Willem Dafoe, Gretchen Mol, Alfred Molina. Ruthless corporate headhunter in Chicago battles his rival for control of their job-placement firm, until a family tragedy brings his personal and professional lives into conflict.
1st Screening: Tuesday, September 13, 2:15 PM – Scotiabank 3

THE BLEEDER — Director: Philippe Falardeau. Cast: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss, Jim Gaffigan, Ron Perlman. Story of the rise, fall and rise of Chuck Wepner, who decked Muhammad Ali and was an inspiration for Rocky.

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