Climate For Deals At Toronto Feels Gloomy

TORONTO: As Toronto got into full swing Friday, audiences seemed more enthusiastic about the new films than buyers. At a time when Big Media earnings are up and the box office outlook is bright, the gloomy sales climate here indicates that the shakeout in the indie film sector isn’t over. It is hard to imagine there would be so many star-driven films vamping hard to find distribution. There is the Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator with James McAvoy (which premieres today in a gala screening), the Will Ferrell-starrer Everything Must Go (which I saw last night), the Nicole Kidman lead The Rabbit Hole, the Keanu Reeves-led Henry’s Crime, the Rachel Weisz heroine The Whistleblower and dozens of other pics with strong casts and helmers.  I haven’t seen a bad film yet. No doubt the worthy films will find distribution. Problem is, buyers are in no hurry and willing to wait out sellers in order to pay rock-bottom prices for these indies. Films that once attracted $1.5 million in minimum guarantees now bring $250,000, partly because of the old law of supply and demand: there are simply more good indies than capable distributors because the  specialty DVD film market has cratered so badly.

Distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and The Weinstein Co already have their Oscar lineups, so they’ve no need to make a quick deal like last year, when Harvey Weinstein bought himself an Oscar contender by acquiring Tom Ford’s A Single Man.  The longer these deals take, the less leverage sellers have. I suspect many of the recent deals I’ve written about have been little more than service arrangements, where financiers engage distributors to bring pictures to the marketplace for a fee. So I doubt there will be any electric auctions this festival like the last Sundance when Focus Features acquired The Kids Are All Right and Lionsgate bought the Ryan Reynolds-starrer Buried.

If so, they will likely come not in the batch of star-driven prestige releases, but the low-budget genre fare coming from the Midnight Madness program. That’s where James Gunn unveiled Super early this morning, with Rainn Wilson playing a wannabe superhero (his power comes from the business end of a plumber’s wrench), Ellen Page as his psycho sidekick, and Kevin Bacon in a hilarious turn as the drug dealer who charms away the superhero’s troubled gal (Liv Tyler). The movie rocked the Ryerson Theatre with shocking Tarantino-esque depictions of violence and sex mixed with camp and humor. Titles like Bunraku and Insidious will also keep buyers up late. It’s the prestige pics that are in for a challenge.

For instance, Redford’s pic was financed by American Film Company (Joe Ricketts) for under $25 million, the company’s per-film max. It’s an historical drama about the first woman executed by the U.S. government and a hard sell without Redford’s name attached. “All the titles getting the Oscar buzz have already been claimed,” said one indie distributor. Another tells me: “’Some of these pictures have good casts, but maybe they’re dark or in a genre where who knows if the stars will draw? You really  don’t know until you see how they play with an audience and reviewers.  Nobody’s in a hurry.  Will Ferrell just opened a hit in The Other Guys, but are people going to buy him in a serious movie like Everything Must Go?”

I saw that movie, too, and I think Dan Rush’s directorial debut will get a deal. Ferrell’s likeability keeps his drunken lout character from being too off-putting. But will domestic and foreign distributors want it enough to refill the coffers of Twilight producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, who put up the bulk of the film’s $5 million budget?  I also saw Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy, which stars Michael Sheen and Maria Bello as parents of a teen who commits suicide — after he murders fellow students in a rampage. The actors make the most of a spiral of grief and denial, but the film’s a real marketing challenge same as The Rabbit Hole (parents dealing with a child’s death) or The Whistleblower (sex trafficking).

Sellers are hoping that other players come onto the scene and give them more options. This year saw three distributors crap out on festival film deals, and I Love You Phillip Morris, Casino Jack and Happythankyoumoreplease had to be re-sold months later. Bill Pohlad’s decision to set The Tree of Life at Fox Searchlight has ominous connotations for his own distribution company Apparition. Who’s gonna step up? There is hope for Newmarket, which just took on the Peter Weir film The Way Back (financed by Newmarket’s parent company Exclusive Media); Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media could become a buyer after acquiring Overture; former Apparition head Bob Berney is expected to form a new distribution company financed by GK’s Graham King and Tim Headington. Berney has been seen at Toronto, but if he’s going to be a buyer, it won’t be here. CBS Films, looking to supplement its own pictures with acquisitions, is on the ground here and could be a player for the more commercial pics. Music Box is ramping up.

The distribution downswing has created opportunities for some new players, like Mickey Liddell. Liddell emerged from anonymity to rescue the I Love You Phillip Morris and Biutiful. Latter film sat since premiering in Cannes and winning Best Actor for Javier Bardem, as distributors weren’t knocked out by the dark premise and its Spanish language. Liddell placed both pictures with Roadside Attractions for release in awards season. He’s also behind the Jacob Estes-directed The Details with Tobey Maguire, a film likely to make its debut at Sundance. Sellers like Liddell because he’s backed by a hedge fund guy.

When I met Liddell Friday, he said he’d like to acquire more films. “After the fallout, I’d go to these festivals and see so many movies available. It’s started to turn around a little bit, but people were getting out as I was getting in. I did okay with the five films we picked up, and thought, maybe this is a business. I was interested in Phillip Morris from the moment I saw it, and couldn’t believe it was a true story. When  I saw Biutiful, I dreamt about it and woke up concerned about the fictional characters as though they were real.” Liddell is aware of others who’ve tried to gain a foothold in this fragile business and then exited, but said he’s taking his time and keeping his exposure low.

He wouldn’t disclose what he paid for either film, but word is it was next to nothing. His primary role is putting up the P&A that will give each film a chance. That’s a deal many here would be hot for in this cold climate.

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