This year’s Torotnto International Film Festival is back in full force with an impressive slate of movies, in-person crowds and distributors eager to fill up their pandemic-depleted slates. But the acquisition titles on display this year may not be the splashy, commercial, gala movies that once made Toronto unique on the fall festival circuit.
Multiple distribution executives and sales agents told TheWrap that while they were eager to leave behind the “ghost town” of last year’s TIFF and settle in for days of movies and premieres just like it was 2019 all over again, many of this year’s buzziest titles up for sale lean especially toward the indie variety or are playing in TIFF’s Discovery section of emerging or first-time directors.
There’s no shortage of available movies and plenty of buyers with a need to fill out their slates for 2023. But experts are split as to whether that means the traditional theatrical buyers will be most active or if major streamers will make any sort of splash.
“People need movies for next year because there are quite a few distributors that have smaller slates, so I think that there’s gonna be a lot of activity,” Kent Sanderson, head of acquisitions at Bleecker Street, told TheWrap. “I do think that a lot of these titles will sell. I just think that a lot of them may sell Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, next week, rather than over the weekend.”
Studios are expected to circle starry vehicles like the Nicolas Cage Western “Butcher’s Crossing” and Catherine Hardwicke’s crime drama “Prisoner’s Daughter” with Brian Cox and Kate Beckinsale. Others have their eye on documentaries, like “The Grab” from “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, about covert efforts to gobble up the world’s food and land resources, and Werner Herzog’s look at new technologies, “Theatre of Thought,” which first premiered at Telluride.
And there’s even a handful of Midnight Madness titles attracting buzz, like “The People’s Joker,” which reimagines the Joaquin Phoenix film “Joker” as a queer coming-of-age story, and “Sisu,” an action-packed WWII epic from Finnish director Jalmari Helander but told primarily in English.
While some feel there may not be one obvious sales title, festivals always allow for surprises. And one agent cautions that last year’s “CODA,” which sold for $25 million out of Sundance 2021 and won the Oscar for Best Picture, hardly felt like a sure thing leading up to the festival either. One sleeper on this year’s Toronto slate could be “Wildflower,” which stars Kiernan Shipka, Jean Smart and Jacki Weaver and, similar to “CODA,” is a coming-of-age story about a girl living with two neurodivergent parents.
Many movies are arriving in Toronto with some form of international distribution already in place, which could put a damper on the enthusiasm of streamers like Netflix or Apple TV+ that typically focus on massive worldwide deals. That could also open the door for more traditional theatrical buyers and day-and-date players.
“In theatrical, there just has to be a tremendous amount of caution from the international theatrical buyers,” said Nick Donnermeyer, who leads production company Yale Entertainment’s sales arm, Great Escape. “Independent films haven’t totally come back yet, so it’s really got to be calculated moves and making sure that you’re finding the right films.”
Among domestic buyers, Neon is seen as the most likely to continue its aggressive acquisition streak. Searchlight has a handful of awards-season movies playing in the festival, including “Empire of Light,” “The Menu” and “Chevalier,” but is likely to buy titles for Hulu, as it did with “Fresh” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” out of Sundance. And a potential buyer could be Paramount+ and Showtime, which one agent said has emerged as a pay-one buyer over the last few years.
IFC Films is “absolutely going with an open checkbook,” president Arianna Bocco said, noting that the company is itching to fill out its 2023 slate. The indie distributor is screening “Corsage” and “R.M.N.” — both acquired in Cannes this past May — and has already nabbed Stephen Frears’ “The Lost King” ahead of its TIFF world premiere.
Bocco noted that the film market has shifted in recent months as the impacts of production shutdowns from COVID have waned. “We’re seeing a little bit of the end of the ramifications of COVID,” she said. “A lot of companies, including ourselves, started to acquire films at an earlier stage… versus waiting till the market. So I think it’s a combination of an ease across the board buying projects at earlier stages as well as the residuals of COVID.”
2021’s TIFF lineup was slightly slimmed down and had even fewer available titles for sale than this year, with the most notable acquisitions coming for films like the Holocaust drama “The Survivor” and the Sigourney Weaver romance “The Good House.” But the markets at this year’s Sundance or Cannes came roaring back. Apple’s $15 million acquisition of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” out of Sundance was the headliner of a festival that also produced buys of $7.5 million for “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” for Searchlight and a mid-seven figure deal from NatGeo for “Fire of Love.” And Cannes produced something of a race to acquire Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness” before it eventually went to Neon.
Over the last two years of mostly virtual festivals, including those out of Sundance and Cannes, sales weren’t confined to the official fest dates as many titles sold weeks before or after their premieres. Now that festivals have the opportunity to put butts back in seats, that trend is beginning to change. Buyers want the opportunity to see how a film performs with an audience, and sales agents don’t have to check logs of who watched a virtual screening before following up.
“You win if you can wait,” Participant’s executive vice president of content and platform strategy Liesl Copland said. “We all want desperately to be reminded why we’re in the business and being in rooms for the same thing for the first time with others is a big reason why.”
The Toronto International Film Festival starts Thursday and runs through Sunday, Sept 18.