A battle between two Indiewood companies and a handful of big budget acquisitions deals marked the business side of this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The fight between Paramount Classics and Fox Searchlight over the rights to Jason Reitman's "Thank You For Smoking," which may still lead to a lawsuit, had insiders buzzing throughout the festival. Later in the week, other high dollar pacts were inked when Fox Searchlight nabbed Bart Freundlich's "Trust The Man" and Focus Features grabbed "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" by Michel Gondry.
The head of one Indiewood company, who declined to be quoted on the record Tuesday, said that the battle between the two studio specialty divisions gave an otherwise mediocre market a bit of drama. At the fest's midpoint this year, numerous buyers complained about a lack of worthy films for sale. But as the fest continued, deal-making seemed to pick up.
Chatting with indieWIRE this weekend, festival co-director Noah Cowan (who used to run New York-based distributor Cowboy Pictures) defended the festival's market, saying that the high-profile deals may have left some buyers a bit shell-shocked. And he noted that there are a number of worthy films that bolder buyers will step up and acquire.
"We didn't anticipate that there would be major studio-like deals happening," explained Cowan, chatting with indieWIRE, "When you are dealing with that, suddenly everybody gets a little nervous. When the big boys start to play, everyone else has to kind of fall back a little bit."
While some buyers complained about the quality of films on offer this year, others felt that there were some movies to be had. "I think going in, there were a number of titles available for acquisition that seemed very promising and a number of them ended up a bit disappointing," explained Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, in an email conversation with indieWIRE Tuesday. "But there were some very viable films and big sales, and some sales will be completed in the coming weeks." Continuing he added, "Compared to this year's Cannes, it was a mother lode, I'd label it average."
"If there had been anyone talking about bad films, I'd have to assume there had to be a bit of sour grapes going on," said Noah Cowan, during the conversation with indieWIRE. "I don't think there is going to be one company who is going to leave Toronto empty handed, so there must be some films they liked." Continuing he added, "We may have made a couple of mistakes. We prob should have been clearer about the marketing challenges of some of these obvious acquisitions titles."
Other deals in Toronto this year, some of which closed near the end of the festival, included Miramax acquiring all North American rights to Ward Serrill’s "The Heart of the Game," Roadside Attractions nabbing North American rights to Richard E. Grant's "Wah-Wah" and ThinkFilm announcing worldwide rights to Josh Gilbert's "a/k/a Tommy Chong."
Sony Pictures Classics inked a pair of deals, getting Andrucha Waddington's "House of Sand" and Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada". But the company seemed concerned about the rising costs of films at this year's festival. Company co-president Tom Bernard explained that prices for films this year are simply too big.
"I thought it was a good lineup," Bernard told indieWIRE Tuesday by email, but added, "The product was very expensive, many good films are still available...people are not willing to pony up the big dollars the middlemen (sales agents) are asking -- there are 4 films we would buy now if the price was right."
Perhaps sellers felt empowered by last year's success of "Crash," which was acquired by Lions Gate in Toronto and went on to gross more than $53 million at the box office. Some worried that the success of "Crash" coupled with the high profile deals already announced might leave tougher films out in the cold this year.
"I can't tell you the number of conversations (I had) that included, 'I really love that film, but I don’t know how to market it'," explained Cowan. But he cited a pair of buyers that he says will grab some of the more challenging festival titles. Cowan noted Michael Cuesta's "Twelve And Holding," Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's "Brothers Of The Head" and Larry Clark's "Wassup Rockers" as potential acquisitions targets. But clearly there is a bit of a chill on the market for tougher films.
"There is no question that films that we would have considered viable just a few seasons ago are too risky to undertake these days," explained ThinkFilm head of distribution Mark Urman. "Small films are smaller than ever and titles that would have done decently a few years back would almost certainly be doomed to abject failure these days."
"So many interesting films were already attached to distribution," added Eamonn Bowles, "And people will always make films that for whatever reason aren't viable in our extremely competitive marketplace. (With) 18 films reviewed in the New York Times the second Friday of the festival, what does your film have that's going to beat out the others?" he posed, adding "A good little film is a good dead film in the current landscape, unfortunately."
One particular film that was perceived as rather challenging, David Ayer's "Harsh Times," did secure a deal but it was acquired by the previously unknown and mostly unproven outfit, Bauer Martinez Distribution. The unit is a new arm of Bauer Martinez Studios.
"There were four big sales ("Thank You For Smoking", "Trust The Man", "Block Party" and "Harsh Times") compared to last year's one ("Crash")," noted Roadside Attractions' Howard Cohen in an email interview with indieWIRE this week. "It would appear there's been a surge of production in the $5 - 10M range, made by equity financiers and specifically targeted for festival sale to the mini-majors." Continuing he added that the generally weak performance of last year's small, but interesting films, like 'Yes', 'Palindromes', and 'Mysterious Skin' may have had an impact on the market this year. "These failures may be partly laid at the door of the more marketing driven films like 'Crash' and 'March Of The Penguins' which are sucking away a bit of the art house audience."
"As a result," continued Cohen, "We often found ourselves at this year's Toronto fest passing on good films with good initial reviews if they didn't have the elements to carve out some space in the increasingly Darwinian specialized arena." He added, "I must have turned to my partner Eric (d'Arbeloff) after ten different films and said, 'Good film but is anyone going to see it?'"
The head of a leading Indiewood division, who requested anonymity, noted that buyers seemed rather picky this year, saying in an email this week, "My sense is that most folks have films well into next year so they were looking for something 'bigger' -- thus the real competition for a few titles. With that in mind, with a few exceptions, most of the films also felt very specialized or I guess to use the vernacular, 'smaller'."
"Very few titles felt like they could break beyond a couple of million of dollars at the box office," the Indiewood veteran said. "So all in all, lots of well-made interesting movies that are going to attract people to the directors, writers, actors, etc. -- but not necessarily ones that feel like they can make an impact in the marketplace. With that said, I don't think that means the marketplace (although it is tough) is the defining factor -- it was more about the perceived commerciality of the films this year."