While the Toronto International Film Festival doesn’t boast a market as robust as Sundance or Cannes, there are always big deals; buyers like to see how movies wow TIFF critics and crowds. Most of all, the massive lineup of 300-plus films means that there’s the possibility of identifying a film that others overlook. “Nobody knew that movie was going to be what it was,” said Focus Features’ distribution chief Lisa Bunnell, remembering a little movie by Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker.” “The real surprise is nothing you can predict.”
Most TIFF slates are packed with Oscar contenders. Fox Searchlight has “The Favourite” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”; for Sony Pictures Classics it’s foreign-language titles “Capernaum,” “Sunset,” and “Never Look Away.” Annapurna has Barry Jenkins’ TIFF world premiere, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and Jacques Audiard’s “The Sister Brothers,” while Focus brings “Boy Erased.”
However, it’s possible that a TIFF buy could mean an awards play. Last year, 30West/Neon scooped up “I, Tonya”; in the past, Searchlight did the same with “Jackie” and “The Wrestler.” Neon, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, A24, IFC, or The Orchard might make room for something new like John Chester’s hot Telluride documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” which is looking for a deep-pocketed buyer willing to mount a live-action remake.
Studios will be on hand too; last year, Paramount EVP of Worldwide Acquisitions Syrinthia Studer bought “Book Club” out of Toronto.
And then there are the online disrupters. Still in management transition, Amazon Studios might make some buys, while Netflix has cooled acquisitions while it spends heavily on original content: TIFF’s lineup includes opening-night actioner “Outlaw King” and taut noir thriller “Hold the Dark” starring Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgard, as well as two auteur Oscar contenders, Paul Greengrass’s terrorist reenactment “22 July” and Alfonso Cuaron’s elegiac black-and-white “Roma,” for which Netflix outspent studio bidders by plunking down more than its $20 million budget.
The other new Silicon Valley buyer this year is Apple, which is sending a sizable contingent of acquisitions executives, who may look beyond television premieres, Apple’s global entertainment focus thus far.
Some of the hottest titles on sale aren’t even produced yet. CAA Media Finance will sell North American and FilmNation is pre-selling foreign rights to “Star Wars” writer-director Rian Johnson’s next film, murder procedural “Knives Out,” starring Daniel Craig as a detective. It’s set to start shooting in November, as the next James Bond is delayed. Also selling in TIFF, following the worldwide sale of “355” in Cannes, is another Jessica Chastain project, Tate Taylor’s “Eve” (CAA and Voltage Pictures).
And Endeavor and FilmNation are selling revenge thriller “The Nightingale,” Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to “The Babadook,” starring Aisling Franciosi as an Irish convict seeking revenge on a British officer (Sam Claflin) in Tasmania. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival to strong reviews.
“The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” (CAA): Xavier Dolan turned up in Telluride in a cameo in “Boy Erased,” but saved for his hometown festival this long-in-the-making drama with a sprawling cast (Chastain didn’t make the final cut), including Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay, Thandie Newton Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates. It’s set to open in Canada, but has no U.S. distributor.
“Donnybrook” (UTA): This gritty actioner, Brit Tim Sutton’s fourth feature, turned down Venice to premiere in Friday’s opening Platform competition slot. Set in Trump’s America, Frank Grillo stars as a man struggling to save his family. He winds up facing toughie Jamie Bell in a brutal cage fight.
“Driven” (Endeavor Content): Inspired by true events, but not a biopic, Brit veteran Nick Hamm pits shock-haired maverick John DeLorean (Lee Pace) against neighbor drug-dealer Jason Sudeikis, who fed information to the authorities.
“Greta” (CAA/Endeavor Content): Irish auteur Neil Jordan directed this atmospheric mystery starring Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman who makes friends with a strange older widow (Isabelle Huppert).
“The Hummingbird Project” (CAA/Hanway): Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen (“The War Witch”) directs Alexander Skarsgard and Lee Eisenberg as two high-frequency trader brothers who set out to lay fiber-optic cables between Kansas City and New York to get an edge on their Wall Street competition. Salma Hayek plays their abusive boss.
“Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” (Cassian Elwes/CAA/Fortitude International): Director Justin Kelly worked with writer-producer Savannah Knoop on this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction fable about how writer Laura Albert (Laura Dern) enlisted her younger sister-in-law (Kristen Stewart) to impersonate her literary character J.T. LeRoy. They get away with it, for a while. Diane Kruger plays a bisexual actress-director based on Asia Argento, who dallies with Knoop/LeRoy.
“Maya” (Orange Studio): French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love’s follow-up to “Eden” and “Things to Come” is a love story set in India.
“A Million Little Pieces” (CAA/Sierra Affinity): Aaron Taylor-Johnson and his wife, director Sam Taylor Johnson, adapted James Frey’s rip-roaring confessional 2003 bestseller, which was tainted by the author’s admitted fictionalizing of his own memoir.
“Red Joan” (Embankment Films): Trevor Nunn directs this spy thriller starring Judi Dench, who plays an aging spy who is not to be underestimated. Dench is like catnip for the older audience.
“Skin” (ICM Partners): Another American movie starring Jamie Bell, this time as a neo-Nazi. From Israeli director Guy Nattiv. Vera Farmiga costars.
“Wild Rose” (CAA): Tom Harper’s musical starring British rising star Jessie Buckley (“Beast”) as a singer from Glasgow making it big in Nashville has already garnered a lot of upbeat word of mouth from early buyer screenings.
“Vita & Virginia” (Protagonist Pictures): Chanya Button directs this literary lesbian romance between gay heiress Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Bloomsbury author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Dubecki).
“Vox Lux” (WME and CAA): The real question is why this Venice sensation starring sexy Natalie Portman singing original Sia songs hasn’t sold yet. No buyers in Venice may be one reason. The other is not that it’s an avant-garde musical. No, filmmaker Brady Corbet refuses to excise a violent action scene that could prove controversial. That’s his right, but he also wants to play in theaters, so Toronto will tell the tale.
“American Dharma” (Endeavor Content): This time renowned documentarian Errol Morris (Oscar-winner “The Fog of War”) confronts the far-right media mogul and architect of Donald Trump’s presidency, Steve Bannon (portrayed as Darth Vader on SNL). The filmmaker gives as good as he gets, but buyers may be squeamish about reigniting controversy –see editor David Remnick’s blowback for booking an interview with Bannon for The New Yorker Festival. “No one wants to be associated with Steve Bannon,” said one distributor. “It’s about a lot more than free speech; he’s not your moral human being.”
“Biggest Little Farm” (UTA): After Telluride screenings, interested buyers range from conventional distributors to streamers. Why the interest in John Chester’s movie about starting a farm with his wife (who’s writing a book)? It’s several movies in one: the gorgeously shot environmental documentary works as a moving back-to-nature fantasy and family film for a wide range of audiences including animal lovers.
“Maiden” (Dogwoof): British filmmaker Alex Holmes chronicles the heart-tugging story of the first all-women crew (led by British skipper Tracy Edwards) to compete in the around-the-world sailing competition once called The Whitbread Cup.
“This Changes Everything” (ICM): Tom Donahue (“Casting By”) has been working for years on this assemblage of a who’s who of women to tell the history of gender inequity in Hollywood, including Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, Jessica Chastain, executive producer Geena Davis, Britt Marling, and Reese Witherspoon.
“Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema” (Dogwoof): TIFF will screen the first four-hour installment in a 16-hour series about female filmmakers, narrated by executive producer Tilda Swinton, which prolific Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins (“The Story of Film: An Odyssey”) expects to finish by year’s end.
“Meeting Gorbachev” (Submarine/HISTORY): Werner Herzog and his frequent producer André Singer co-directed this portrait of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev for A&E’s History 100 series. The German filmmaker has rarely interviewed politicians over his 50-year career, but “in the case of Gorbachev, admires him,” said TIFF programmer Thom Powers, “not least of all for his role in the reunification of Germany. What we get is a portrait of a leader who makes such a marked contrast to the leaders we have today. Gorbachev is a man of grace and wisdom and commitment to peace, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him, to see someone with so agile a mind as Werner Herzog draw him out on a number of subjects.”