Box office is down. Streaming services aren’t yet willing to take center stage. What does a mid-range festival acquisition have to do to get a little attention around here?
As the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival nears its midpoint, the success stories so far lie in the small buys of foreign-language films and titles designed for limited releases. Kino Lorber bought Italian historical drama “Martin Eden” and “Beanpole,” the sophomore feature from Russian director Kantemir Balagov, while Greenwich Entertainment bought the rights for French director Quentin Dupieux’s “Deerskin.”
And on the festival’s first day, IFC and Magnolia Pictures respectively announced acquisitions of Australian folk epic “True History of the Kelly Gang” and the documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.”
For films with broader theatrical ambitions, the action has been more limited. Fox Searchlight acquired North American rights to Armando Iannuci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” two weeks ahead of its TIFF premiere. And Bleecker Street announced that it acquired “Military Wives” starring Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Peter Cattaneo (“The Full Monty”). The feel-good comedy premiered September 6 as a Special Presentation.
Part of the festival problem lies with studios preferring to lock up hot titles long before they reach the circuit. Take Saturday’s high-profile premieres, STX’s “Hustlers,” and Lionsgate’s “Knives Out.” The Lorene Scafaria’s recession-era stripper film and Rian Johnson’s whodunit would both be no-brainers for any deep-pocketed buyer — high entertainment value, rave reviews, and star-studded ensembles are enough to make them commercially viable even in this challenging market.
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Compounding buyer disappointment is many titles are waiting to screen in 2020 at Sundance and Berlin. However, the biggest culprit may be a sluggish theatrical market that has seen few independent successes this year — and the very clear wide-release failures of Amazon’s $14 million “Late Night” and Warner Bros. $15 million “Blinded By the Light.”
At this writing, Hugh Jackman-starrer “Bad Education” hasn’t announced a buyer. (Endeavor Content and CAA are handling domestic sales.) Nor has Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s tearjerker “The Friend” (Endeavor), or Darius Marder’s buzz title “Sound of Metal” starring Riz Ahmed (CAA), or Drake Doremus’ UTA-repped “Endings, Beginnings.”
Ahead of TIFF, sellers hoped that new streaming platforms in need of content would help bolster the market during a time of theatrical uncertainty. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Sales agents were unsure whether Apple would be in buying mode as part of the ramp-up for the fall launch of its Apple TV+ service. So far the tech company has acquired one TIFF premiere, the Bryce Dallas Howard documentary “Dads,” which offers a lighthearted look at modern fatherhood.
That’s exactly the kind of family-friendly fare with a message Apple has been going for with its “Morning Show” series and acquisition of the Jim Crow-era drama “The Banker” earlier this year.
As for Amazon, its strategy bears no resemblance to the aggressive moves at Sundance 2019. It made acquisitions of two small titles a couple of weeks before they screened at TIFF: the Brazil-set “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão” (Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, where it won the top prize) and “Blow the Man Down,” a seaside noir from Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won a prize for best screenplay.
Like all streamers, the metrics of Amazon’s success are murky compared to those of traditional distributors. Beyond a film’s box-office performance, exactly how does it measure the success of a title against its purchase price? For now, that answer remains elusive — but given Amazon’s restraint in Toronto, it’s possible that the streamers aren’t that mysterious, after all.
Anne Thompson contributed to this report.