As the final acquisition deals roll in on Toronto’s 2014 film festival movies, a couple of overriding themes emerged that bode well for the appetite for indie fare and have sellers smacking their lips for AFM, Sundance, Berlin and beyond. In a fest where Harvey Weinstein left his checkbook home and didn’t make a single splashy deal, I have never seen so many new players make statement buys at a festival than happened in Toronto.
The other intriguing development came on the fest’s biggest deal, when Paramount Pictures swooped into the auction of the Chris Rock-directed comedy Top Five, and blew buyers out of the water by paying $12.5 million for worldwide rights. It was the second straight fest where Paramount did this, after the studio made a precedent-setting pre-buy Cannes deal for the Denis Villeneuve-directed Amy Adams sci-fi film Story Of Your Life. Some established indie buyers thought Paramount overpaid; they will have to spend upwards of $20 million in P&A — meaning the film will have to gross $50 million to pay off — because Rock’s not an internationally bankable star. But I think it’s an acceptable risk for Paramount, a studio always looking to fill release slots. That studio can make bigger bets than the Usual Suspects at festivals for films its execs feel have crossover potential. If more studios follow suit though, it could change the prices and the ecosystem of festival films.
The independent acquisitions marketplace is the healthiest we’ve seen it since back in 2008, when the economic crash and studio flight from prestige films cratered the business. While TWC, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight were content to use Toronto as a launch pad for their films, most of the usual players did their deal-making to fill 2015 slots. In tracking and breaking these sales, I usually know who the buyers are, but this year there was a lot of ‘who the hell are they?’ as intel flew on new bidders like Clarius and Broad Green. So here’s who the hell they are:
• When Focus re-focused from a New York to Hollywood company and Universal put James Schamus on the street, his partner Andrew Karpen declined to uproot his family and head West. He recently formed Bleecker Street and populated it with a lot of his longtime colleagues, a move that immediately made sellers feel they were in good hands and that they were pretty much selling to the old Focus. Karpen made his statement buy with a low seven-figure deal for Pawn Sacrifice, the Ed Zwick-directed film that stars Tobey Maguire as enigmatic upstart chess wiz Bobby Fischer, and Ray Donovan’s Liev Schreiber as Russian master Boris Spassky.
• After EuropaCorp’s Luc Besson and Christophe Lambert bought a half share in Relativity’s distribution pipeline and launched their funding in Cannes to hatch the new disribbery Red, their acquisitions exec Federica Saint-Rose bought Big Game, an action adventure that played the Midnight Madness section, with Samuel L. Jackson playing the U.S. president whose plane is downed by terrorists and whose fate is tied to a youth sent on a survivalist mission to become a man.
• An entirely new player, Broad Green, stepped up and acquired for $3 million and a strong P&A commitment the drama 99 Homes, which stars Andrew Garfield as a construction guy who goes to work for the greedy real estate hustler (Michael Shannon) who evicted him. That film didn’t premiere until Monday night because it played Venice, but it signaled the arrival of a new player at the table with a pocketful of chips.
• Clarius made its play on a film that didn’t even officially shown in Toronto. That was a $4.5 million minimum guarantee and $20 million P&A commitment for She’s Funny That Way, the broad comedy that is Peter Bogdanovich’s first film in 13 years and stars Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Nebraska’s Will Forte, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Aniston. In the comedy that is kind of a warped fairy tale, Poots stars as an actress who recalls how the actions of a charming Broadway director (Wilson) changed her life from being a Brooklyn-born escort to a starlet. The film opened in Venice and probably didn’t get into Toronto because another Aniston film, Cake, played there. So sellers UTA, CAA and Cassian Elwes held a buyer’s screening before everyone left Toronto, and another in Los Angeles. While Cake is still waiting to be eaten, She’s Funny That Way scored one of the biggest deals of the fest.
• Beyond that, Haim Saban’s Cannes-launched Saban Films paid $2 million for the Hayden Christianson-Adrien Brody starrer American Heist, and seven-figures for Tracers, a Taylor Lautner thriller, the latter of which was the first deal on the ground at Toronto. A24, which has already signaled itself as a major buyer, walked away from Toronto with While We’re Young, which viewers said was the most commercially viable film by the superb prestige filmmaker Noah Baumbach, this one starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver.
All of this augurs well for the future, though it could strain the margins on indie films, where U.S. and North American rights deals comfortably land in the $1 million-to-$4 million range. Margins that disciplined, established buyers won’t exceed unless they really fall in love with a film now could escalate because of monied newcomers with pipelines to fill. But nobody really spent that crazy at Toronto, and almost everyone walked away happy with at least one film in the bag. After a slow start, the major deal makers at CAA, WME Global and UTA are selling out to the walls. Sure, there are some titles left in play — Boychoir had at least one offer for $1.5 million and $7 million P&A but is still not closed — but those tireless deal brokers were all pleased with the appetite and the fact that within a couple weeks they will have sold out the inventory they brought here.
What did Toronto mean to these newcomers?
“We are a company built by a filmmaker, Luc Besson, and what we want to do on the acquisitions side is find filmmaker-driven films,” said EuropaCorp’s Sainte-Rose, who’s charged with acquiring as many as eight films to be released under the Red banner while Besson and Lambert generate that many in original productions. “A film like Big Game is ideal because it is elevated genre, but it also announces a talented young filmmaker with a strong voice and visual sense. We want to find the Loopers and Limitlesses, that fits our mandate, and some director-driven sophisticated films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Place Beyond The Pines, which have breakout potential. We were hungry to come home with a finished film, and we got one.” This will likely be released as PG-13, and has a crossover shot at a younger demo.
“This was the statement we wanted to make, that we came to Toronto to buy and have the ability to step up and be a player,” she said. “Until you buy, you aren’t a player. We began building this acquisitions team August 1, and had five weeks, and we demonstrated we can move quickly. Big Game was a godsend in that it was exactly what we wanted, and it was there to be had,” Sainte-Rose told Deadline.
Making a strong statement was important to Clarius, as well.
“What emerged out of TIFF was that there were all these newbies on the block, and a lot of eyes watching all of us to see who we are, the kind of product and the level we would be hitting at,” said Clarius EVP Strategy and Acquisitions Louise Chater. “We came in feeling we were ready to ramp up and handle bigger films. It is hard to break through, and a good acquisition that shows ambition is a good way to break through. We’ve stayed under the radar, with a priority of servicing our product, but it felt like the right time to make a statement, and we were delighted to do it here. [She’s Funny That Way] is buoyant, and it has the right temperament for a spring release and we feel it can be an upbeat quarter one movie. It matched perfectly a gap in our release calendar, it’s a beautiful rapid-fired comedy with a great cast and it hit the right note to come out after the darker months of winter, and into the early spring.” She said that the goal of Clarius is to release six to eight movies per year, through acquisitions of finished films, though they will look to pre-buy into films as script stage, as many buyers now do.
We’ve seen new players emerge and flame out, and we’ve seen other new players learn lessons at the expense of films they’ve bought. But aside from the Chris Rock deal, this Toronto will be remembered for the birth of new players, and filmmakers and their sellers were open to taking chances on new companies with execs, like Karpen, who’ve proven themselves in past incarnations.
“The agencies really embraced us,” said Chater. “They reassured talent they would be in good hands. These companies might be new, but the people making decisions are not. You need good films to prove yourself, and we got ours.”