Reports of a weak marketplace at the Toronto International Film Festival have been greatly exaggerated. After distributors held firm for the first week of TIFF, playing a waiting game while high-profile titles like “Jackie” starring Natalie Portman and “Colossal” starring Anne Hathaway found homes, activity has picked up with a flurry of deals, indicating the independent film market is still robust.
One of the first signs of life was Roadside Attractions’ acquisition of “Lady Macbeth,” director William Oldroyd’s critically celebrated Victorian tragedy starring 19-year-old newcomer Florence Pugh. A dark tale of a sexually frustrated young woman (Pugh) stuck in a loveless marriage in 19th century England, the film was among the first TIFF titles to find a home despite having no high-profile celebrity stars. Pugh is attracting rave reviews for what is sure to be her breakthrough performance. “It’s not dissimilar from when we saw Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone,” Roadside co-president Eric d’Arbeloff told IndieWire on Thursday. Roadside plans to release the film in 2017.
French mogul Luc Besson’s U.S.-based upstart company Europa Corp also acquired “Their Finest,” director Lone Scherfig’s (“An Education”) period comedy-drama, IFC Films picked up “The Bleeder,” Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s biopic of legendary New Jersey-born boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber), and Music Box Films acquired U.S. rights to the Emily Dickinson biopic “A Quiet Passion,” starring Cynthia Nixon.
So nobody can claim the marketplace was really that cold during TIFF 2016. But who had the upper hand — buyers or sellers? “There’s always a top tier of films [for which] the sellers are in a more luxurious position of having choices and trying to establish the terms they want,” Josh Braun, co-president of international sales agent Submarine Entertainment, told IndieWire. “For pretty much everything else, it’s closer to a buyer’s market.”
By the time the first handful of TIFF deals had closed, however, a few days of muted activity led some reporters to claim the TIFF market for films had largely frozen over. Then, on Thursday morning, Magnolia Pictures snapped up the TIFF doc “I Am Not Your Negro,” director Raoul Peck’s film about James Baldwin’s last and unfinished book on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and race in America.
In an interview with IndieWire, Magnolia Co-Executive Vice President Dori Begley said that the vast majority of TIFF films would eventually land a distributor. “In past years, every single one would [find a home],” Begley said, shortly before the company closed its deal for “I Am Not Your Negro.” “Right now we’re in a little bit of a change.”
Whereas new entrants into the indie distribution world helped cause a deal frenzy at TIFF in recent years, in some cases by overbidding on movies to help build slates and make a name for a new brand, the competition is leaner this year. Alchemy went out of business, The Weinstein Company’s RADiUS has yet to relaunch, Broad Green shifted toward productions, and Relativity Media’s new shingle has been quiet.
“In the last few years, there’s been an irrational exuberance, especially from the new distributors,” Magnolia President Eamonn Bowles told IndieWire. “That’s starting to calm down.” Magnolia is a theatrical distributor that has a distribution deal with Netflix, where its titles are made available for subscription video on-demand (SVOD) following their theatrical release. “A world where there’s just Netflix is not a good one, because they’re going to call the shots and you want some competition around the SVOD marketplace,” Bowles said. “I’m glad Amazon and Hulu are in there. We’ll see how it shakes out.”
SVOD deals, which involve a service that gives users unlimited access to content for a monthly rate, differ from cable operators’ transactional video on-demand (TVOD) deals, where viewers pay for each movie individually. “I think all transactional [viewing] is tougher and tougher,” Bowles said. “Having someone pay money for an individual film is tougher.”
Among the other TIFF titles that have picked up distribution in recent hours are Werner Herzog’s ecological thriller “Salt and Fire,” acquired by XLrator Media, and “The Bad Batch,” writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to her hit debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” purchased by Screen Media Films. Fox Searchlight is also reportedly in final negotiations to acquire Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom,” a romantic drama about an African prince marrying a London woman, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.
It’s important to remember that the most high-profile acquisitions frequently don’t end up leading the box office. The Sally Fields comedy “Hello My Name is Doris” didn’t make much noise when Roadside acquired it out of 2015’s South by Southwest Film Festival, but the film has gone on to be a sleeper hit among indies, generating nearly $15 million at the box office. “The nature of this is, you just have to kind of go with the movies that you really love,” said Roadside’s d’Arbeloff, adding that indies made outside the studio system have a unique ability to excite audiences. “That’s what keeps us upbeat and still optimistic — that we still get to keep having these experiences.”