The Toronto Film Festival opens on Thursday amid hopes for a strong film market, but don’t get your hopes up. TIFF is always packed with hungry buyers from all over the world checking out a range of hot new projects on the market (from the post-World War II drama “Lyrebird” to the buzzy “Bad Education”) as well as footage of future movies like Reinaldo Marcus Green’s suicide drama “Good Joe Bell,” written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and starring Mark Walhberg.
While there’s a long list of movies for sale at TIFF, buyers are disappointed that many are waiting to screen in 2020 at Sundance and Berlin. Nobody knows which companies will be willing to plunk down solid money this year. Sellers are praying that new streaming players will buoy the market at a time when jittery theatrical distributors are afraid to overpay. “I would expect buyers to be a bit careful in Toronto,” said one European distributor. “But the smart buyers will always buy if the price makes sense.”
The box office continues to be a risky bet for festival pickups. Take the films bought at Sundance that have been released this summer: “Late Night” (Amazon, $13 million) and “Blinded By The Light” (New Line, $15 million) both fell short of box office expectations, while the jury is still out on “Brittany Runs a Marathon” (Amazon, $14 million). Only “The Farewell” (A24, $7 million) was brighter spot in the specialty market.
The jury is out on whether Amazon will repeat its spending spree, as Amazon chief Jennifer Salke changes up her theatrical release model. Right now, observers are confused by Amazon’s game plan. Amazon picked up Brazilian Oscar submission “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão,” and has a bunch of films in the production pipeline. But fall movies “The Aeronauts” (an $80 million Amazon original shot in Imax) and $14-million Sundance buy “The Report” are slated for short theater runs before going straight to Prime.
Some distributors got busy ahead of TIFF, as Fox Searchlight scooped up North American distribution rights to Armando Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” ahead of its TIFF world premiere. There’s pressure to buy things early; Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment bought Renee Zellweger vehicle “Judy” (September 27) based on a five-minute sizzle reel in Cannes 2018; the musical debuted well in Telluride and will build momentum with audiences and media in Toronto.
Netflix has been paying less for acquisitions and more for its own content; the streamer came off a strong Telluride with good reaction for Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy “Marriage Story” and Vatican two-hander “The Two Popes,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. Martin Scorsese’s $175-million “The Irishman” starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino will open the New York Film Festival. While Netflix still seeks fresh content for its global subscribers (and does buy low-cost foreign-language titles), it’s less needy than it once was and may not drive prices as high.
Agents are hoping that the market could become more competitive this year now that new streaming players are entering the fray, eager to pick up content for their subscribers. Apple, which is spending big money on both original content and acquisitions for its Apple TV+ service launching this fall, has already shown it has interest in awards films and diverse stories after it acquired the Jim Crow-era drama “The Banker” earlier this year, starring Samuel L. Jackson. Apple will reveal a distribution partner before year’s end. Apple has already made a releasing deal with A24, which will help push TIFF 2018 documentary buy “The Elephant Queen” into theaters this fall (no date as yet). A distributor for Sundance 2019 pickup “Hala” is expected to be announced in time for a fall release. And more pictures are in the pipeline, including Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, which is destined for 2020 theatrical play.
So far, Apple+ is more invested in greenlighting series than acquiring films. 2020 series “The Morning Show,” starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carell — which will reportedly cost $300 million for a two-season run — shows Apple wants to reach as broad an audience as possible with recognizable talent and high-end production.
WarnerMedia is readying to enter the streaming wars with its HBO Max. Executives are expected to be at TIFF screenings, but agents don’t expect them to be in buying mode for the service, which launches next year.
And Hulu, newly invigorated under Disney’s total control, is ramping up its film strategy, which may include a mix of “Hulu Originals” pickups and SVOD output deals with traditional distributors like Neon, IFC and Magnolia. More and more, as Amazon and Netflix are less available, buyers lean on Hulu as a partner in any festival buy.
Here are 19 promising films for sale this year, ranked by likelihood to sell big.
1. “Bad Education”
Domestic sales: Endeavor Content and CAA/international sales: Endeavor Content
The follow-up to his 2017 dark-comedy thriller “Thoroughbreds,” Cory Finley’s sophomore effort returns once again to explore the underbelly of a tony suburb. This time, the story is based on real-life events surrounding the Long Island high school attended by writer and co-producer Mike Makowsky. Hugh Jackman stars as the superintendent involved in the $11 million embezzlement scheme, with Allison Janney plays his number two. Ray Romano also stars.
2. “True History of the Kelly Gang”
UTA and CAA/Memento
Justin Kurzel directs this sweeping epic based on Peter Carey’s novel about the controversial 1870s Australian folk figure, which promises stunning cinematography from Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth”), lots of violence (like Kurzel’s feature debut, “Snowtown”), and a riveting performance from Russell Crowe. George MacKay (“1917”) and Nicholas Hoult (“The Favourite”) also star.
3. “The Friend”
Endeavor Content/STX International
Best known for the Sea World expose “Blackfish,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s second narrative film stars Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson as a couple dealing with Johnson’s character’s impending death. Their friend, Jason Segal, moves in to help them out. Based on Matthew Teague’s autobiographical Esquire article, the drama promises to be a tearjerker.
4. “The Australian Dream”
This documentary about how aboriginal AFL legend Adam Goodes dealt with racism was produced by John Battsek (“Listen to Me Marlon”) and NBA star Ben Simmons; it played well in Telluride.
After he produced the Ridley Scott crime thriller “All the Money in The World,” Imperative Entertainment’s Dan Friedkin is teaming up with Scott again. “Lyrebird,” which takes place just after World War II, is produced by Scott and marks Friedkin’s directorial debut. Starring Guy Pearce, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps, and Roland Møller, the film follows Dutch folk hero Han van Meegeren who swindled millions from the Nazis.
6. “Military Wives”
“The Full Monty” director Peter Cattaneo returns for his fifth feature, which centers around a group of women dealing with the stress of their husbands away at war and the monotony of living on a military base. They decide to form a choir and find themselves at the center of a global movement. The film stars Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient”) and Sharon Horgan (“Game Night”). Word is that it’s an emotionally satisfying crowdpleaser.
7. “Sound of Metal”
Darius Marder, who co-wrote “The Place Beyond the Pines,” makes his feature debut as writer-director with a film about a heavy-metal drummer whose hearing loss makes him reevaluate his place in the world. Riz Ahmed (“Nightcrawler, “Rogue One”) stars as the drummer and Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Thoroughbreds”) plays his bandmate and girlfriend.
8. “How to Build a Girl”
Coky Giedroyc’s first film since the 1999 comedy “Women Talking Dirty” stars Beanie Feldstein (“Booksmart,” “Lady Bird”) as a teenager who reinvents herself in order to get a job as a London music critic to help out her impoverished family. Emma Thompson and Chris O’Dowd also star in the film based on the semi-autobiographical novel by music journalist Caitlin Moran, who co-wrote the screenplay.
9. “The Burnt Orange Heresy”
UTA and CAA/HanWay
Set against the opulent backdrop of Italy’s Lake Region, this art-heist thriller based on Charles Willeford’s noir novel stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, and Donald Sutherland. Giuseppe Capotondi (“The Double Hour”) directs.
10. “My Zoe”
Julie Delpy writes, directs, and stars in this drama that marks a departure from her earlier comedies. Offering suspense and twists, the film follows a recently divorced mother (Delpy) who is driven to extremes as she reels from her toxic marriage and struggles with her ex to co-parent their daughter.
11. “Saint Maud”
Rose Glass earned festival buzz for her 2015 short, “Room 55.” The writer-director’s feature debut, a Midnight Madness selection, follows a pious nurse (Morfydd Clark, “The Personal History of David Copperfield”) who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient (Jennifer Ehle, “Zero Dark Thirty”).
12. “The Other Lamb”
The English-language debut from festival-favorite Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska stars “Vox Lux” actor Raffey Cassidy as a member of an all-female cult led by a man (Michael Huisman) who begins to question his teachings and her own reality.
13. “Coming Home Again”
Hong Kong-born Wayne Wang (“Smoke,” “Joy Luck Club”) helms the story of a Korean-American man who returns home to take care of his dying mother and learn her traditional recipes. The screenplay was written by Wang and Chang-rae Lee, who wrote the New Yorker article that inspired the film.
14. “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”
This documentary based on Robertson’s memoir “Testimony” chronicles his life from his beginnings as an ambitious Toronto teenager who travels to the Deep South on a musical mission with his bandmates in The Band. The film, directed by Daniel Roher (“Sourtoe: The Story of the Sorry Cannibal”), includes interviews with Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and Taj Mahal.
15. “Pelican Blood”
Katrin Gebbe’s psychological drama follows a horse trainer (Nina Hoss, “Phoenix”) and adoptive mother who struggles with her newly adopted disabled daughter, who cannot build emotional connections with the people around her.
16. “The Giant”
UTA and CAA/WildBunch
David Raboy makes his feature writing and directing debut with this entry from the Discovery section based on the filmmaker’s critically acclaimed short that played at Locarno and Clermont-Ferrand. Odessa Young (“The Daughter”) plays a teenager who tries to move past personal trauma as a mythic killer terrorizes her town, preying on girls who resemble her.
17. “The Perfect Candidate”
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s third feature shares themes with the life of the director herself — Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker. The film follows a female Saudi doctor whose surprise run for public office leaves her community struggling to accept their community’s first woman candidate.
CAA and Wild Bunch/Wild Bunch
Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore feature was also his second film to play in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard — all before he celebrated his 28th birthday earlier this summer. This follow-up to his 2017 debut “Closeness,” gorgeously lensed by 24-year-old cinematographer Kseniya Sereda‚ takes place in Leningrad following the devastation brought by World War II, where two young women search for meaning and hope as they rebuild their lives.
19. “Red Penguins”
Gabe Polsky’s (“In Search of Greatness”) newest documentary brings viewers to just after the collapse of the Soviet Union when marketing whiz Steve Warshaw was sent to Russia with the task of transforming the Russian Red Army hockey team into the greatest show in Moscow. The film tells a story of capitalism and opportunism run amok and promises gangsters, strippers, and live bears serving beer at the Moscow rink.