This Toronto Film Festival shapes up largely as an international platform for studios to launch their awards-season entries for the next Oscar race. There are dozens of finished films for studio execs to be tempted by while they’re here, but there will be a healthy level of skepticism from buyers who’ve seen too many acquisitions not justify acquisition prices and P&A spends in arguably the most tumultuous transitional period in movie history. It is a moment when streamers continue to assert themselves as a viable alternative to moviegoing with the young crowd, when television gives audiences what they want when they want. And while in many ways the relationship between distributors and major exhibitors has the film business seeming like it’s in the Jurassic era.
Toronto is a good filter for buyers, because it brings back to earth the films that get overly fawning treatment at Telluride and Venice, but add to that the morality-heavy PC force that much of the media has become, and it is getting more precarious to launch films here despite the friendly Canadian audiences. One slip is hard to overcome: Viggo Mortensen’s excellent performance in last Toronto’s award winner Green Book was dogged by an unfortunate slip and use of the “N” word in a public forum, which seemed to get him discounted in the Oscar race; and A Million Little Pieces, a worthy film with potential to be a touchstone for addicts, got walloped as an acquisitions title last Toronto, as critics couldn’t see past the years-old controversy involving the book’s author James Frey.
Already there are stories popping up over this week’s THR interview that had Scarlett Johansson saying she believed Woody Allen, speculating how it will haunt her award chances this fall. Coverage of the business sometimes resembles the second act of The Crucible, as we seem unable to separate art from the artist, and define them squarely by misdeeds.
The whole indie world seems on its heels, even with the symbolic blow of seeing the shuttering of Gotham’s 71-year old Paris Theater after its lease expired days ago. Deadline has been forecasting its demise since June, but that hardly eases the blow of losing Manhattan’s last single-screen movie palace, christened in 1948 by Marlene Dietrich. While City Cinemas is trying its best to get 91-year-old real estate magnate Robert Solow to change his mind (the same real estate titan shuttered the Beekman screens), rumors coursed through New York yesterday that Netflix was scrambling to step in and might be the best hope to keep the theater from shuttering for good. A movie house whose long runs of films like The Artist turned those pictures into hits might fit well into Netflix’s evolving model where pleasing filmmakers like Scorsese and Cuarón are big priorities. The Paris closing follows the shuttering of Lincoln Plaza and the Landmark Sunshine. I have also heard billionaire Charles Cohen, who bought the Landmark, as possible savior.
Then there are the Sundance acquisitions that have left a trail of box office futility, with prestige film breakouts seeming few and far between. Those winners include The Farewell, a $5 million Sundance acquisition that A24 has worked into a $16 million domestic gross so far; and from last Toronto there was Hotel Mumbai, wrested from The Weinstein Company wreckage by Bleecker Street and ShivHans Pictures, which has grossed $9.5 million.
But enough of the gloom and doom. Distributors have to continue taking big swings with some financial discipline, because what else are they going to do? Already there are signs of life. Fox Searchlight preempted the field for the Toronto title The Personal History of David Copperfield; After a well-chronicled string of pricey Sundance acquisitions that underperformed at the box office, Amazon Studios just sewed up rights to finance and release Jennifer Kent’s next film, Alice + Freda Forever, betting on an emerging filmmaker with a vision well worth nurturing. Like everyone else, Amazon is evolving its model also, with films like the Toronto-bound The Aeronauts and The Report platforming for awards late year but heading after only two weeks to the Amazon Prime streaming site, in time for the holidays. And Knives Out makers Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman just sealed a long-term partnership with Valence Media and MRC, something that came out of the stampede to win that film on the eve of last Toronto.
This is probably going to be a tough year on the acquisition market for finished films, but chances are that upcoming streamer launches from Disney, WarnerMedia and Comcast will help in future years because those launches will need product. And it is becoming crystal clear that films without stars or surefire audience grabbing elements will reach consumers more and more on streaming sites than in theaters. Count in this mix IFC Films Unlimited, which just launched in Canada and hitched its wagon to the Apple TV app both in Canada and the U.S.
Sellers and buyers I spoke to in the weeks before this festival factored in all these realities, but they will be the first to tell you that judging the success of a festival market merely by finished film deals is a misnomer. The indie business has become a year-round for buyers and sellers more preoccupied with setting projects as script stage pre-buys, or through deals made on promo reel footage while films are shooting. That part of the game is not easy either — piecing together the Aaron Sorkin-directed The Trial of the Chicago 7 after several false starts was an achievement in itself, with Cross Creek, ShivHans and Paramount Pictures finally stepping up as a superb cast mobilizes. It’s beginning to feel like all these films are small miracles, and you just hope audiences turn out to see them in movie theaters.
So maybe there won’t be record-setting sales this Toronto — last year’s acquisitions, from Greta to Stan and Ollie, Nightingale, Vox Lux and Poms, did not produce a breakout to speak of — but keep an eye on the pre-sale market, where Knives Out found funding, and where Hustlers landed at STX after Annapurna let it go as that indie evolves its operation.
Expect the headlines to be dominated by awards-bait films like the Todd Phillips-directed Joaquin Phoenix-starrer Joker, the James Mangold-directed Matt Damon-Christian Bale-starrer Ford v Ferrari, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, the Renee Zellweger-starrer Judy, and the Noah Baumbach-directed Marriage Story. And leave room for the surprise last last year, when unheralded Green Book won the People’s Choice Award that launched it to Best Picture, while all eyes were on films like Roma and A Star Is Born. And if a film like the Hugh Jackman-Allson Janney-starrer Bad Education plays like I, Tonya did here, or Daniel Radcliffe as action hero in Guns Akimbo scores like the offbeat sleeper Swiss Army Man, then all small bets are off.
What follows here is a list of available films mentioned by buyers and sellers, and that includes packages and promos I’ve heard about that might solidify here or gain momentum that will leads to deals at AFM or later.
BAD EDUCATION – Director: Cory Finley. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanthan, Ray Romano. The unfolding of the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in U.S. history – a true story that pits corrupt educators against dogged student journalists against the backdrop of a cutthroat Long Island suburb. Special Presentations, 1st Screening – Sun, Sept 8, 6:15 PM, Visa/Princess of Wales.
BLACKBIRD – Director: Roger Michell. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska. A mother, gravely ill, gathers her family together for one last weekend before she ends her life on her own terms. Gala Presentations, 1st Screening – Fri, Sept 6, 9:30 PM, Roy Thomson Hall.
TRUE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG – Director: Justin Kurzel. Cast: Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult. Gala, 1st Screening, Wednesday, Sept 11, Roy Thomson Hall 9:30 PM.
CITIZEN K – Director: Alex Gibney. Gibney tracks Mikhail Khodorkovsy, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia. TIFF Docs, 1st Screening – Sat, Sept 7, 6 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
DIRT MUSIC – Director: Gregor Jordan. Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Garrett Hedlund, David Wenham. A woman finds herself stranded in a relationship on the remote and beautiful coast of Western Australia, a chance encounter with an outsider results in an affair that dredges up secrets and changes lives. Special Presentations, 1st Screening – Mon, Sept 9, 10 AM, Scotiabank 12
ENDINGS, BEGINNINGS – Director: Drake Doremus. Cast: Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan. A thirtysomething woman navigates through love and heartbreak over the course of one year. Gala, 1st Screening – Sun, Sept 8, 9 PM, Ryerson Theatre
THE FRIEND – Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Cast: Dakota Johnson, Gwendoline Christie, Casey Affleck. A friend supports a husband and father who’s wife dies from cancer. Gala, 1st Screening – Fri, Sept 6, 6 PM, Princess of Whales
HOW TO BUILD A GIRL – Director: Coky Giedroyc. Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine. Born into uninspiring circumstances, a teen moves to London, changes her name and persona in search of a more adventurous life. Special Presentations, 1st Screening – Sat, Sept 7, 12 PM, Ryerson (World Premiere)
HUMAN CAPITAL – Director: Marc Meyers. Cast: Liev Schreiber, Alex Wolff, Maya Hawke. The fortunes of two families in Connecticut become perilously interwoven when suddenly their two high-school kids become involved in an accident leading to unforeseen consequences. Special Presentations, 1st Screening – Fri, Sept 6, 12 PM, Scotiabank 13
I AM WOMAN – Director: Unjoo Moon. Cast: Evan Peters, Danielle MacDonald. The life and career of iconic ’70s singer Helen Reddy. Gala, 1st Screening – tonight, 5 PM, Elgin
JUNGLELAND – Director, Max Winkler. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, Jessica Barden. Reluctant barroom brawler and his brother travel across the country for one last fight, but their bond is fast cracking along the way. Special Presentations, 1st Screening – Sat, Sept 7, 9 AM, Scotiabank 3
LA BELLE EPOQUE – Director: Nicolas Bedos. Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Fanny Ardant. Disillusioned and his marriage on the rocks, sixtysomething Victor is given the opportunity by a brilliant entrepreneur – through theatrical trickery and historical re-enactment – to relive the most memorable week of his life, when he met his true love. Pic’s in French. 1st Screening – Thurs, Sept 5, 11:30 AM, Scotiabank 14.
MILITARY WIVES – Director: Peter Cattaneo. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan. Inspired by the true story of a band of women who form a choir on a military base, and their bonds of friendship transform their lives and help overcome their fears for loved ones in combat. 1st Screening – Fri, Sept 6, 2 PM, Elgin Theatre
MOSUL – Director: Matthew Michael Carnahan. Cast: Waleed Elgadi, Hayat Kamille, Suhail Dabbach. After being rescued by an Iraqi SWAT team from an assault by insurgents, policemen, Bashar joins the SWAT team, and is thrown into a world of secrecy and ceaseless, remorseless fighting. Special Presentation, 1st Screening – Mon, Sept 9, 3:45 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
RESISTANCE – Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Bella Ramsey, Ed Harris. True story of famed mine Marcel Marceau, who learned to mime while saving the lives of Jewish orphans whose parents were murdered by Nazis. Private 1st Screening – Thurs, Sept 5, 9:30 AM, Yonge-Dundas.
SYNCHRONIC – Director: Justin Benson. Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan. Two New Orleans paramedics’ lives are ripped apart after encountering a series of horrific deaths linked to a designer drug with bizarre, otherworldly effects. Special Presentation, 1st Screening – Sat, Sept 7, 3 PM, Ryerson Theatre.
WASP NETWORK – Director: Olivier Assayas. Cast: Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Ana de Armas, Gael Garcia Bernal. True story of five Cuban political prisoners imprisoned by the United States on charges of espionage and murder since the late 1990s. Special Presentations, 1st Screening – Mon, Sept 9, 6 PM, Ryerson Theatre
AMERICAN WOMAN – Director: Semi Chellas; Cast: Lola Kirke. Patty Hearst’s time in hiding is reimagined and told from the perspective of the political activist and fellow fugitive, Jenny, who is assigned to take care of her. Gala, 1st Screening – Thurs, Sept 5, 3 PM, Scotiabank 10
THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY – Director: Guiseppe Capotondi. Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland. A fast-talking, backstabbing, womanizing art critic receives an assignment from English art dealer and collector Joseph Cassidy to not only interview the famous-but-reclusive French painter, Jerome Debney, but steal his latest work. He crosses over from the art world to the underworld. Gala, 1st Private Screening – Today, 9 AM, Scotiabank 5.
CALM WITH HORSES – Director: Nick Roland. Cast: Barry Koeghan, Ned Dennehy. Ex-boxer Douglas “Arm” Armstrong’s role as the feared enforcer of the drug-dealing Devers family endangers his autistic 5-year old son. Discovery, 1st Screening – Sat Sept 7, 1.30 PM, Scotiabank 11.
THE GIANT – Director: David Raboy. Cast: Odessa Young, Jack Kilmer, Ben Schnetzer. On her graduation day, Charlotte’s first love returns home after vanishing for a year. Discovery, 1st Screening – Sat Sept 7, 7:45 PM, Scotiabank 3.
GUNS AKIMBO – Director: Jason Lei Howden. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving. Miles fights for survival in a gladiator type battle for an audience of a dark website in order to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. Special Presentations, 1st Screening – Mon Sept 9, 9.15 PM, Ryerson.
LYREBIRD – Director: Dan Friedkin. Cast: Guy Pearce. True story of an art dealer who sold paintings to the Nazi’s, but with an ulterior motive. Special Presentations, 1st Screening, Thu Sept 5, 2:30 PM, Scotiabank 3.
PREBUYS & PROMOS I’VE HEARD ABOUT
AMMONITE – Director: Francis Lee. Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan. Relationship between a paleontologist and a wealthy woman in England in the 1820’s. Pic is shooting and a promo is expected to be shown at TIFF.
BITTERROOT – Director: Michael Gilio. Cast: Kevin Costner. An old rancher becomes a vigilante on a mission to recover his money after a million dollar sweepstakes scam cleans out his entire. Costner killing it on Yellowstone and pic casting.
CHERRY – Director: Joe & Anthony Russo Brothers. Cast: Tom Holland. Based on true story of an army medic with PTSD and a heroin addiction turns to robbing banks in Cleveland.
CI34 – Director: George Tillman Jr. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chadwick Boseman. True story of when FBI got involved in hiring known hitman to take out members of the KKK.
COME AWAY – Director: Brenda Chapman. Cast: Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Anna
Chancellor. Origin story as Alice (of Wonderland) and Peter (before Pan) are brother and sister, trying to help their grieving parents after their brother dies, and finally choosing between home and imagination.
EVEL – Director: Richard Linklater. Cast: Matthew McConaughey. Rise and fall of Evel Knievel, as movie with George Hamilton shoots in backdrop.
THE GLORIAS – Director: Julie Taymor. Cast: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Bette Midler. Gloria Steinem’s journey in becoming an iconic activist for equal rights.
GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE – Director: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado. Cast: Karen Gillan, Angela Basset, Lena Headey, Paul Giamatti. A young woman and her estranged mother, who are both assassins, must join forces on the run to take a male-dominated crime syndicate they used to work for.
HARRY HAFT – Director: Barry Levinson. Cast: Ben Foster. Young Polish man, forced to box other Jews with the loser killed, escapes and tries to find redemption as a pro fighter, hoping to reunite with the woman he lost.
RIO – Director: Edward Berger. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams. Struggling actor travels to Sri Lanka to visit a rich old friend, only to be drawn into a dangerous and exotic criminal underworld involving a high stakes conspiracy and a plot to fake his friend’s death.
SPAWN – Director: Todd McFarlane. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Jamie Foxx, LL: Adaptation of the
comic book series.
WATER MAN – Director: David Oyelowo. Gunner, a young boy with a seriously ill mother, runs away from home in search of the mythical Water Man, who is rumored to have the power to cheat death. Project shook loose from Disney.
BORN TO BE MURDERED – Director: Ferdinando Cito Filomarino. Cast: Alicia Vikander, John David Washington, Boyd Holbrook, Vicky Krieps. Vacationing couple falls into a violent conspiracy with tragic consequences.
BREAKING NEWS IN YUBA COUNTY – Director: Tate Taylor. Cast: Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Regina Hall, Awkwafina. After catching her husband in bed with a hooker, which causes him to die of a heart attack, Sue Bottom buries the body and takes advantage of the local celebrity status that comes from having a missing husband.
THE FATHER – Director: Florian Zeller. Cast: Olivia Colman, Anthony Hopkins, Imogen Poots. Drama about a dementia-stricken elderly man, and the efforts of his daughter to balance the need to care for him with the demands of her own life. Promo to screen at TIFF.
WALDO – Director: Tim Kirkby. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Mel Gibson, Zoe Saldana. Disgraced ex-cop seeks solace by moving to the woods, but his quiet life comes to an end when a private eye recruits him to investigate a murder.