With its timely vision of Black American icons, awards buzz, and run at two of the fall’s three major festivals, Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” couldn’t have asked for a better sales environment in any other year. But in 2020, few in the business could get to Venice to watch the premiere, while TIFF’s largely virtual program means American industry members would be stuck screening King’s directorial debut at home. The in-theater excitement and cocktail chatter that have inspired so many late-night dealmaking sessions? Not COVID friendly.
“Everyone’s trying to be creative and find a situation whereby we’re not just sending out links (to online screeners) and hoping for the best,” said ICM Partners sales agent Oliver Wheeler.
Earlier this summer, ICM offered extended footage of the film to a cadre of buyers in a tight screening window, a pandemic-era (virtual) analogue to the usual pressure-cooker festival sales environment. Within 24 hours, the film was sold to Amazon after a bidding war, with a price tag one source placed well north of the $20 million HBO paid for last year’s “Bad Education,” which set an all-time record at TIFF. At that time, one source told Variety the “Bad Education” sales reps opted not to pre-screen the film, hoping heat from the premiere would fuel spending. What a difference a year makes!
When the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday, it will likely mark another year of the event serving as one of the industry’s most critical dealmaking venues. But after a summer filled with still-unannounced transactions, a drastically truncated festival lineup that buyers are lukewarm about, an in-person experience reserved for locals, and the return to theatrical in its infancy, the “wait and see” attitude that has permeated business activity in the pandemic continues to be a refrain for both buyers and sellers. While few are expecting any unsold films to create “One Night in Miami”-level excitement, nor do they see much chance of finding a hidden gem in the 50-film lineup, the fact remains that TIFF represents the best of this year’s limited stock, and buyers are planning to use the opportunity to fill their pipelines.
Though this year’s TIFF is shaping up to be a seller’s market, agents have embraced the mantra of not just sending out screener links, particularly for some of the hottest sales titles. Endeavor Content, for one, is mounting drive-in screenings for the urban horseman tale “Concrete Cowboy,” the Naomi Watts family drama “Penguin Bloom,” and the Midnight Madness standout “Shadow in the Cloud.”
Even if many theatrical buyers are in need of stock, they remain cautious. “Tenet,” the first pandemic tentpole release, as of Monday was projected to gross $20.2 million in its first 13 days in Canada and eight in the US, just as Disney launched its grand “Mulan” PVOD experiment. While many distributors are shopping TIFF for next year’s slates, this fall’s theatrical landscape will play an outsized role in determining the future of exhibition: In 2021, how many screens will be left in the US? And how will Universal and AMC’s window-shortening deal impact smaller films?
With deep pockets and no theatrical worries, streamers have an obvious advantage. And with such a tiny pool of acquisitions titles, buyers and sellers are expecting streamers and their voracious appetites to set the agenda.
One indie acquisitions executive expressed concern that streamers — with a hunger created by the streaming wars and COVID production stoppages and, in the case of HBO Max and Peacock, offering an attractive alternative to theatrical — will bring heretofore unseen competition for smaller titles usually snapped up by specialty distributors.
And an agent postulated that the longer the pandemic roils the production pipeline, the more distributors of all breeds will bolster their slates with acquisitions, such as selections from the inaugural TIFF Industry Selects market. Among the 30 films not included in the main festival lineup that are screening at the sidebar are Nicole Riegel’s 2020 SXSW pick “Holler,” which was executive produced by Paul Feig. Meantime, buyers and agents are also using the festival as a chance to set up sales meetings for unproduced projects.
On the other hand, a “wait-and-see” market means things could go the other way. One acquisitions executive at a streamer pointed out that, during the pandemic, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple’s appetite for star-driven, commercial fare has increased. Netflix took Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Lovebirds” off Paramount’s hands in April, while Apple bought the Tom Hanks war drama “Greyhound” from Sony at the beginning of the summer. And at TIFF, there are few English-language movies with notable casts up for grabs.
If this chapter of the streaming war is all about laser focus on those kinds of movies, theatrical distributors may have less competition from streamers than they fear. In fact, one studio distribution executive sees Netflix as having more than enough films in its pipeline, creating a scenario where the world’s largest streamer stays quiet at TIFF.
“If it’s a movie that can easily play on a platform, then I think you’ll exponentially increase the number of buyers interested in it and it becomes a real open season,” one studio acquisitions executive said. “If it’s a movie that relies on the theatrical experience, and there’s a number of movies that definitely can and will, it comes down to what companies are best positioned to do it.”
That could include films like Gianfranco Rosi’s wartime documentary “Notturno” and other non-English titles that typically rely on deft theatrical strategies to lead them to the Oscars. However, the pandemic is shifting filmmakers’ theatrical versus streaming calculus. While Lulu Wang famously passed up a streamer’s doubling of A24’s offer for “The Farewell” at Sundance last year, now agents are seeing a newfound onus being put on theatrical buyers amid such an unfriendly environment for brick-and-mortar cinema.
“To be competitive with the streamers, they’re going to have to come to the table with some kind of plan,” one sales agent said. “Whether it’s Netflix who puts films up on the platform, and that’s the only way to see it, or it’s Neon who’s going to structure a specialty release, filmmakers want to feel like there’s a strategy behind it so consumers can find them.”
Here are 10 films for sale to appeal to a wide range of buyers.
Domestic and international sales: Endeavor Content
The buzz around director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s sophomore effort has been building since last year’s TIFF, when star Mark Wahlberg was on hand to preview footage. With Wahlberg already already in the mix as an early Best Actor contender, this film from Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” scribes Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana is an easy acquisitions candidate for prestige theatrical buyers. Wahlberg stars alongside Connie Britton and Gary Sinise in a true story about a father’s walk across the US to raise awareness about the harms of bullying.
Domestic: Endeavor Content/international: Sierra/Affinity
Ricky Staub’s feature debut assembles an all-star cast led by Idris Elba, Lorraine Toussaint (“Selma,” “Orange is the New Black), Caleb McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”), Jharrel Jerome (“Moonlight”), Byron Bowers (“The Chi”), and Method Man. Inspired by the century-old Fletcher Street Stables, a Black horsemanship community in Philadelphia, and Greg Neri’s novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” the film follows McLaughlin as a 15-year-old taken to live with his estranged father (Elba), where he discovers the city’s vibrant urban cowboy subculture that flourishes amid North Philadelphia’s poverty, violence, and gentrification. Early interest is strong; it’s one of just four TIFF titles to get the virtual news-conference treatment and the festival plans to screen it for free to frontline workers. With the appetite (and need) for Black stories greater than ever, the unique story of this film makes it all the more appealing to a wide array of buyers.
Worldwide: Endeavor Content
With a string of award-wins in his native Australia, director Glendyn Ivin is poised to make a name for himself on the global stage with the fact-based “Penguin Bloom.” Naomi Watts stars as a woman who becomes paralyzed after an accident. The avid outdoorswoman enters a long depression, but is able to begin to emotionally heal after her family nurses a wounded bird back to health. Watts, with two Oscar nominations and a career’s worth of critical acclaim, is said to have waited years to play this role, one that’s sure to showcase her range a la “Mulholland Drive” — but in a life-affirming package that could attract smaller theatrical distributors and streamers alike.
Worldwide: Bron Studios
Known for his long string of Cannes picks, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s English-language debut was one of the buzzier movies to premiere earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival. Written by Mundruczó’s wife Kata Wéber, the film’s brutal depiction of the grief experienced by parents who lose a child during a home birth could suggest risky commercial prospects. But with acclaimed performances from recognizable leads in Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) and Shia LaBeouf (“Honey Boy”) and backing from EP Martin Scorsese, the melodrama could rise above the pack and attract a streamer looking for serious fare.
Domestic: Submarine/international: The Match Factory
After his “Fire at Sea” became the first nonfiction film to win Berlin’s top prize in 2016, Oscar-nominee Gianfranco Rosi’s latest documentary is off to a promising start: It’s the only documentary to be selected this year by Telluride, Venice, TIFF, and NYFF. The film, which has been universally acclaimed in initial reviews out of Venice, was shot over three years in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon and offers a human perspective on the war-plagued region. Kino Lorber distributed Rosi’s two most recent features in the US; the arthouse distributor and its peers would jump at the chance to acquire Rosi’s latest, though other arthouse companies with international documentary experience are pursuing it as well.
Worldwide: Endeavor Content
Crystal Bear-winning Chinese-New Zealand director Roseanne Liang combines action, horror, and historical drama for “Shadow in the Cloud,” which she which she reworked from the original script by disgraced screenwriter Max Landis. Chloë Grace Moretz stars in the World War II-set film, which centers around an Allied all-male crew confronted by a female officer who boards their plane carrying a suspicious package. Strange happenings and holes in her backstory lead to paranoia surrounding her true mission, while an evil presence lurks aboard the flight. Feminist themes, genre elements, and Moretz’ acting chops make the film attractive both to regular Midnight Madness shoppers like IFC Films as well as streamers.
Domestic: Endeavor Content/international: Sierra/Affinity
Halle Berry’s directorial debut, in which she also stars, will screen as a work-in-progress. The Oscar winner plays a former MMA fighters struggling to regain custody of her son and restart her career in a classic redemption story with texture. The film is on the radar of theatrical buyers and streamers with the resources required to launch such a well-known star’s debut feature. However, the movie isn’t quite finished and may not be available to press and industry unable to see the film on the ground in Toronto, which makes it difficult to determine just how much the festival could catalyze a sale.
Domestic: ICM Partners/international: The Match Factory
With a distinctive style that has earned him numerous Cannes accolades, Mexican director Michel Franco’s latest effort offers two wildly different perspectives on Mexico City: a protest and an upscale wedding. The drama, which centers around a new order of class stratification and military rule, may be in Spanish, but should easily resonate with American audiences becoming more and more disenfranchised by a growing wealth divide. While still ambitious, word is that “New Order” is more accessible than Franco’s earlier works, opening it a range of buyers larger than the usual distributors of international fare.
Domestic: CAA/international: STXinternational
TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey describes English writer-director J Blakeson’s latest film as a “droll thriller,” suggesting an off-beat follow-up to Blakeson’s last effort as both helmer and scribe, the acclaimed “The Disappearance of Alice Creed.” The film pits a legal conservator (Rosamund Pike) who defrauds elderly clients and runs afoul of a gangster (Peter Dinklage). Name recognition for its stars and a darkly funny premise could attract theatrical buyers, though it remains to be seen how well the film will resonate with critics.
Domestic: Cinetic Media
Based on newly declassified files, prolific documentarian and Spike Lee-collaborator Sam Pollard’s latest film examines FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign of surveillance and harassment against Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebrated as a hero today, King’s past as a target of US government intervention is less known, making Pollard’s work a welcome addition to today’s discourse around racism and anti-racist activism. The documentary will be an easy sell to audiences eager to learn more about the Civil Rights figure, making the field of potential buyers wide open.
Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.