TIFF 2021: 8 Films That Might Sell Big at the Festival, from ‘The Survivor’ to ‘Earwig’

From biopics to satires, adult love stories to a girl with ice for teeth, this year's market truly has something for every kind of distributor.
"The Survivor"
"The Survivor"

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday with a slimmed-down lineup of just 100 films, the buzziest of which already have distribution. “Dune,” “Spencer,” and “Dear Evan Hansen” are all screening at TIFF, but with one odd twist: They’re only available to watch in person, while the majority of industry attendees will be logging on to the festival remotely.

It’s an unusual quirk in a two-year period of nothing but unusual quirks: TIFF is the only fall festival offering a robust online component. And while the festival is known as a launchpad for awards campaigns, that element will be largely absent from the way the majority of people participate in the proceedings. That, coupled with the fact that buyers have returned in force and are feeling more optimistic despite the Delta variant, could mean greater attention to a slate of titles that range from discoveries to awards bait with bankable elements.

It seems that most buyers will be participating in the festival virtually, a double-edged sword that allows them to focus on the work of shopping titles, but limits their ability to participate in cocktail chit-chat and gauge audience reaction. But with so much experience doing business remotely during the pandemic, buyers and agents have mastered the art of the remote deal.

Agents expect theatrical buyers like A24, who have been quieter around acquisitions during the pandemic, to be in shopping mode during TIFF, while Peacock and Paramount+ have fully joined the fray of theatrical buyers with insatiable appetites. But agents note that streamers have, during recent markets and festivals, exhibited a more selective appetite, one where they’ll pay huge sums for the right projects, while leaving other films alone.

Below find a list of eight titles that could sell big out of the festival, with something for every kind of distributor.

“The Survivor”

Domestic: Endeavor
International: Endeavor, Bron

After a recent spate of dramadies like “Rock the Kasbah” and prestige TV movies like “The Wizard of Lies,” Barry Levinson’s latest film could be a strong awards play for either a theatrical distributor or streamer. The fact-based drama stars Ben Foster as Harry Haft, a man who began boxing while imprisoned at Auschwitz. It follows Harry’s life through boxing, including his time in the U.S. under the tutelage of a trainer (Danny DeVito) preparing him to fight Rocky Marciano.



Domestic: CAA
International: Wild Bunch

Lucile Hadžihalilović’s English-language debut promises to deliver the kind of unsettling and unconventional filmmaking she’s earned a reputation for in her native France. “Earwig” follows a man charged with the care of a 10-year-old girl, who wears dentures made of ice and an associated metal appliance. Such a bold concept might feel inaccessible to mainstream audiences, but it comes as U.S. viewers have embraced out-there horror at ever-increasing levels. “Earwig” will easily be on the radar of distributors like IFC Midnight, Magnolia’s Magnet Releasing, and others with a track record of marketing genre films.



Domestic: ICM
International: The Match Factory

Tim Roth stars in writer-director Michel Franco’s drama about a British man attempting to abandon his life while vacationing in Mexico, only to have his plan thwarted after a death in the family, forcing him, his sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the kids to return home to London. “Sundown” comes after Franco took home the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival for “New Order,” the dystopian Mexican class thriller later met with backlash in that country due to its depiction of race and class, leading the filmmaker to cry “reverse racism” before apologizing. Despite that, “Sundown” could attract the likes of Neon, which distributed “New Order” in the U.S., or one of its arthouse peers.



Worldwide: UTA

Rebeca “Beba” Huntt’s poetic autobiographical documentary was quickly flagged as a possible breakout after its place on the TIFF lineup was announced. Huntt’s feature debut explores the dynamics of race and class she inhabited growing up as an Afro-Latina in New York City and later as a student at Bard College. While the commercial promise of “Beba” might not be so clear cut, the film is bound to attract attention from distributors of all stripes eager to introduce Huntt’s artistry and her future potential to the world.


Naomi Watts in "Lakewood"

Domestic: UTA, CAA, Endeavor
International: Mister Smith

Phillip Noyce’s “Lakewood” promises to offer a wide canvas for its star, Naomi Watts — much of the 84-minute film is focused squarely on Watts, who plays a mother racing to save her child amid an active shooter event in their town. While “Penguin Bloom” doesn’t rank among the best Watts-starring projects, her star power, solid performance, and a heartfelt story did help the movie attract Netflix distribution out of last year’s TIFF, a good precedent for the commercial prospects of “Lakewood.”

“The Good House”

"The Good House"
“The Good House”TIFF

Worldwide: ICM, UTA

Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, spouses and creative collaborators on such projects as “Infinitely Polar Bear” and “The Rocker,” co-direct Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline as ex-flames who rekindle their romance in a New England town. It’s the kind of adult drama with star power that could attract that attention of Sony Pictures Classics or other theatrical distributors.



Domestic: Endeavor
International: Blumhouse

Writer-director Rob Savage’s career has taken off during the pandemic. A viral Zoom prank spurred a feature movie, “Host,” on AMC Networks’ Shudder horror streaming service, which spurred a three-picture deal with Blumhouse. “DASHCAM” represents the first fruits of that pact with Jason Blum’s company. Like “Host,” “DASHCAM” draws on some of the anxieties of the pandemic and is framed within a livestream, where an indie musician breaks quarantine to head from Los Angeles to London, where she encounters gore, gallows humor, and other horrors. The movie could be an obvious target for Shudder, which has made a number of festival pickups in recent years, while the Blumhouse backing could help elevate “DASHCAM” to the attention of other streamers or specialty theatrical distributors.

“Official Competition”

Official Competition
“Official Competition”Venice Film Festival

Domestic: CAA
International: Protagonist Pictures

Argentine writer-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s satire surprisingly represents the first time Spanish A-listers Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas share top billing. The film lampoons the prestige film world; Cruz plays an eccentric auteur who casts Banderas in her upcoming adaptation of a Novel Prize-winning novel. The names of its stars should make this film attractive to many kinds of distributors, though the lack of worldwide rights availability might dissuade streamers, making “Official Competition” a candidate for a theatrical distributor.

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