One of this year’s buzziest Toronto International Film Festival breakouts might be about to land a home, and with a record deal to boot. Deadline reports that HBO is nearly at a deal to acquire Cory Finley’s fact-based embezzlement drama “Bad Education” for a price tag “nearing $20 million.” (Variety reports that the number is closer to $17.5 million.) That price point would put the deal in range of Fox Searchlight’s legendary big ticket festival buy, when the studio purchased Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” for $17.5 million at Sundance in 2016. As has become commonplace, it seems to have boiled down to the ever-raging debate between the merits of theatrical versus streaming.
As Deadline notes, “This one quickly came down to the producers and financiers faced with making a choice that will be more commonplace as fests go forward. Did they want a streaming deal, gamble for less money for a theatrical release with companies like 101 Studios … Or choose an alternative, which they did with HBO, which has a star studded original that it can play on multiple platforms in 2020 and which will be awards contenders for next year for HBO.”
The outlet also notes that some of the film’s stars, including Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, “favored” the theatrical deals, all the better for Oscar opportunities, which appear to have been on the film’s producers and stars’ minds for some time. Earlier this week, Variety reported that, while Finley’s film had attracted a number of potential buyers at the festival, there was “no clear head of the class.” One likely bone of contention: Oscar prospects. Should the film have sold to a distributor for theatrical release, stars Jackman and Janney would have been faced with dwindling campaign days.
Variety reported that sales agencies had actually “considered screening the film at some point in the summer to distributors in hopes of scoring a lucrative deal setting an early awards agenda. The film’s producers pushed back against that strategy, opting instead to roll the dice in Toronto, according to one knowledgeable insider. Another person close to the deal disputed this, saying the agencies wanted heat from the premiere to fuel spending.”
In his TIFF review of the film, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich hailed Jackman’s performance as a disgraced school administrator caught up in a nutty (and true!) embezzlement scheme as his best work ever. He wrote that Jackman delivered “the most human performance he’s ever given, wrapped in translucent vanity and cut with finely sliced layers of doubt and denial.”
Intentions aside, the HBO deal will now guarantee that the film will not compete in this — or any — Oscar season. Instead the film will be in the running for Emmys. It’s a situation that harkens back to HBO’s acquisition of its own Sundance contender: Jennifer Fox’s 2018 drama “The Tale.” While the film, and especially star Laura Dern, were hailed at the festival and awards attention seemed like a likely possibility, the film’s home at HBO took it out of the Oscar race and into the Emmy fray. Dern and the film were both nominated for Emmys in 2018, though neither picked up any hardware.