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by Eric Kohn
September 13, 2011 5:28 AM
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The Wisdom of the Crowd: Why The Toronto Scene Has Led to Skimpy Sales

Dusk in Toronto. Photo by Peter Knegt.

At a film festival, nothing is more dreadful than a blank screen. But that's what audiences confronted last Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival during the first few minutes of "Your Sister's Sister," the latest feature from "Humpday" director Lynn Shelton. Then came those seven dreaded words: There's something wrong in the projection booth.

That was also the issue that faced "The Descendants," Fox Searchlight's Oscar-bound George Clooney vehicle from "Sideways" director Alexander Payne. When the film failed to load -- as a digital download, that's the equivalent of a print being stuck in traffic -- prior to its 9 a.m. TIFF press and industry screening last week, journalists and industry members had to wait over an hour before it began. The resulting domino effect on the day's schedule meant that many people had to either leave early or miss their next screening engagement to catch the whole thing.

"The Descendants" can more easily weather a snafu. A star-driven project with a major distributor in place, it was soaked with buzz ahead of its Toronto arrival thanks to a warm reception at Telluride. When these mishaps occur for smaller movies, the fragility of the festival environment becomes clear. One wrong move and a movie might never make it out of the room.

In addition to the ticket-paying public, Toronto is a packed festival littered with distributors and sales agents from around the globe. That dense amalgam of people turns each screening into an incredibly valuable and sensitive moment. It was therefore inevitable that Fox Searchlight immediately alerted the press when "The Descendants" received a standing ovation at its official premiere that evening.

For unsold movies, an enthusiastic response is further amplified. The ecstatic reaction to the Midnight Madness entry "You're Next" resulted in an explosion of interest when 30 people were turned away from the indie slasher's press and industry screening. Instant positive reaction tends to make buyers salivate.

But if that's the case, where are the sales? So far, the 36th edition of the festival has seen limited activity among U.S. buyers. Steven McQueen's sexaholic profile "Shame" sold to Fox Searchlight over the weekend, but it boarded the buzz train at the Venice Film Festival. Ditto Samuel Goldwyn Films' pickup of biopic "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel."

Similarly, Zeitgeist Films picked up “Elena,” the noir thriller from Andrei Zvyagintsev, which won a Special Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes in Un Certain Regard. And Film Movement announced its purchase of two Toronto titles that premiered elsewhere: French thriller "Free Men" (Cannes) and Julia Murat's Brazilian drama "Historias" (Venice).

In terms of Toronto premieres, there's been Lasse Hallstrom's Middle East-set romantic comedy "Salmon Fishing in Yemen," which went to CBS Films, while Magnet picked up U.S. rights to hockey comedy "Goon" and Cohen Media Group bought thriller "The Awakening" starring Rebecca Hall. However, no one's mistaking these titles for this year's "The King's Speech." They're safe bets, not major discoveries.

The slow pace of sales may reflect lesser quality at this year's program, at least in the more obvious places. (Following the buzz often means missing the gems.) However, another reason lurks beneath the surface: A festival is a charged environment and a festival audience isn't the same thing as a real audience. Prior experiences may not dictate future results.

Bobcat Goldthwait's enjoyably subversive "God Bless America," which features a disgruntled blue-collar worker and a 16-year-old girl gleefully killing reality TV stars, received a riotous response at its Midnight Madness premiere. Audiences cheered after virtually every monologue delivered by Frank (Joel Murray) about the ills of contemporary media. But a movie this violent and irreverent won't easily translate onto a billboard. It remains unsold. [Editor's note: However, a few hours after we published this piece, it did sell. Magnet took worldwide rights.)

"You're Next" is just as likely to wind up at a midsize distributor, as is the Sarah Polley-directed "Take This Waltz" thanks to its marketable cast of Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams.

And then there's "Your Sister's Sister," which solidifies the director's stature as one of the most skillful American filmmakers directing comedy today. It also has two stars (Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt), which certainly doesn't hurt. Most importantly, however, "Your Sister's Sister" has good luck: At the premiere, the audience waited just long enough for the projector issue to subside, inadvertently building anticipation that worked in its favor. Cheers were massive once the first credit popped up on the screen. For once, the problem fixed itself.

Of course, judging films on the basis of commercial appeal runs counter to the festival ideal, which presumes a dedication to showing good movies for their own sake. Still, there's a middle ground between art and commerce that requires constant discussion. If TIFF exists in an insular world, there must be a plan for some movies to cross over to the next one.

TAGS: Features
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6 Comments

  • Mike Rembis | September 15, 2011 1:09 AMReply

    Cross your fingers for us here at The Clearwater Film & Music Festival. We're going out on a limb and experimenting with a huge 8' x 16' LED screen, the first of it's kind in our state, just off the boat from China this week. We're putting a lot of faith into something we never tried before - and this is only our second year! Top that with the fact that we cram a lot of films (57) into 4 days without a big margin for error. I wouldn't be surprised to see bookmakers taking side bets on our show times. Guess I'm just gutsy that way.

    They say anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, so I say, you might as well go for it.

    Mike Rembis
    Executive Director
    The Clearwater Film & Music Festival
    September 22 - 25 Clearwater Beach Florida
    Get Reeled In!

  • ben | September 14, 2011 10:27 AMReply

    TIFF programmers could accept more "sellable" films if they wanted to, but they know doing that would be a detriment to their long-built reputation, stature, and VISION. plus, shunning the art-house and international scene will loose you your core fans and critics, and before you know it the whole festival would morph into a second-rate, superficial mainstream apocalypse within a few short years.

    if anything though, i think this years lineup IS dangerously mundane and mainstream overall, which should actually translate into better sales, but it's not what we're seeing. rather i think the lack of selling just highlights how acute and conservative the film market is at this point.

  • Kevin | September 13, 2011 8:32 AMReply

    “Your Sister’s Sister,” is facing the same dilemma in terms of finding a buyer and while there is interest, its not that much. Especially when its producers are going to the tabloids to give bad gossip towards an actress who had a legitimate reason to drop out of the project when it was being made for the sake of getting notice .

  • Dana Harris | September 13, 2011 7:51 AMReply

    Absolutely right, Ben; have adjusted the story accordingly.

  • Roger J | September 13, 2011 6:41 AMReply

    But, but... digital projection is perfect! Problem free!

    Sigh.

  • BenCM | September 13, 2011 5:42 AMReply

    There have been a few smaller sales though: Zeitgeist picked up Elena. Film Movement picked up Free Men and Historias.

    I know those aren't big, sexy, sales and I don't fault you for not mentioning them in this article, but there are sales happening Toronto. I also think, as you said, a lot of these films are tough and distributors may need some time to figure out how they would potentially market them.