Toronto 2012: High Optimism As Business Reshaped By Filmmaker-Driven Fare And Shifting Formats Reinvigorates Indie Biz

As 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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