Dealmakers get biz done without formal market

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About a year ago, just minutes after the midnight debut of Jonathan Levine's "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" ended at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto, Josh Braun, a partner at New York-based Submarine Entertainment and the film's CAA reps conducted an all-night negotiating session with Harvey Weinstein -- in the back of the darkened cinema.

While Braun would have liked something a little more plush, he understood that at the Toronto International Film Festival, where organizers have no desire to create an official film market, deals can go down anywhere.

"I'd have liked some cushy surroundings," he says, "but as we were closing (the deal), I wouldn't have cared if we negotiated in a storm drain." Braun recalls shaking hands with Weinstein at 5 a.m. on a $3.5 million deal for the worldwide rights to the low-budget teen horror picture.

And even though "Mandy Lane" ended up changing hands again -- the Weinstein Co. eventually sold the film to Senator Entertainment U.S. -- informal dealmaking has become a tradition in Toronto.

Indeed, while Hollywood players and major film sellers routinely set up offices in cushy Toronto hotel suites, the fest's unofficial market remains diffuse and fluid, with film deals hatched mostly in hotel and cinema lobbies, where footloose buyers tirelessly pursue promising titles in the festival's lineup.

ThinkFilm president Jeff Sackman likens Toronto to a "big conference call," with major players tied in via cell phones and BlackBerrys.

"It's a festival that attracts everyone in the industry," adds Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. "Deals are going to get done. It's the best place to sell a movie in North America."

Nevertheless, festival co-director Noah Cowan delivers the party line: Toronto is no Festival de Cannes or American Film Market, meaning there are no sales booths or screenings for buyers hived away from a real public.

"It's a more European style to impose a structure to overlay your festival," Cowan argues. "Encouraging business to take place organically fits our festival mood and tone."

Mongrel Media president Hussain Amarshi, who collaborates in Toronto with SPC via an output deal, says a movie bazaar, by nature, does not require a central gathering point.

"A film market is primarily a meeting place, not a formal market with booths," he observes. "That may work for some businesses, but for this business (distribution), it's not practical."

Many distributors applaud Toronto for encouraging buyers to screen and buy films in the festival lineup; that way, buyers won't get lost in a bewildering maze of film sellers, as in the Palais at Cannes.

"Toronto's relevance is it's a conduit," says Brad Pelman, co-president of Maple Pictures. "Festival programrs are providing the films, and the festival provides a platform for their sellers to display their wares."

That suits Cowan, who insists film sellers and buyers are more accessible in Toronto than in Cannes or Berlin. "They are out about in the city, not locked in meeting rooms or 24/7 booths," he adds.

But while Toronto's informal film market is less expensive to attend than those in Cannes or AFM, is it as effective?

Giulia Filippeli, head of the sales and industry office, points to the steadily growing number of registered film executives, which climbed to a record 3,200 industry delegates in 2006 (and likely 10% more this year), as a measure of success.

Filippeli insists the sales infrastructure she has forged since joining Toronto in 2004 aims at having no central sales hall or guiding hand directing which films sell or don't; she would rather the festival help match buyers and sellers in Toronto and encourage them to do business.

"The model that I've been trying to set down in Toronto is to keep the informality, to give delegates as many tools and services as they need to do their business in the best possible way," she argues.

International film executives bound for Toronto apparently agree, judging its unofficial market as no contradiction but rather a successful balancing act.

"I never hear buyers and sellers complain that there isn't a market," says Unifrance's John Kochman. "It's a strange situation, where the elephant is in the room, and Giulia and the sales office do a lot to help bring buyers and sellers together."

Anick Poirier, vp international sales with Montreal-based Seville Pictures, argues that Toronto is second to Cannes because it has managed to retain its essence as a festival where buyers and sellers can discover new talent without feeling pressure to take meetings.

But Poirier cautions that while Toronto's pragmatism serves established film producers and distributors, it can challenge new players not yet in the club.

"If you don't know the buyers, if you don't know their faces, there's nothing to attract them to you, no sales sheets or booths in front of you," she says.

Here Cowan insists the festival's sales office and industry center work hard to match up industry newcomers, especially Canadian filmmakers and their sales agents, with international buyers and, possibly, producers of their next projects.

SPC's Bernard says that strategy is working: "For international buyers as well as domestic buyers, the sales office makes it easy to connect. There's a wiser atmosphere that allows people to take time to understand the various companies interested in buying a film."

Additionally, David Miller, a producer on "Amal," the directorial debut of Richie Mehta bowing in Toronto, says Toronto's exalted status on the fest circuit means the buying and selling process begins even before the festival has commenced.

"They (Toronto) may not have a dedicated marketplace for Canadian film, but getting into TIFF gives you stature," he says. "We've already been contacted by people interested in buying the film or repping it."

But while the needle on Toronto's unofficial market went off the chart in 2005, when nine major films snagged U.S. distribution deals in Toronto -- including "Thank You for Smoking" (sold for a reported $7 million) -- last year Toronto's unofficial market stalled somewhat at the festival's tail end, dampening enthusiasm.

Filippeli insists that when last year's business activity was tallied up, the dollar value in 2006 matched, if not surpassed, the 2005 level. She points to the fact that many smaller indie pictures -- many foreign -- sold in Toronto last year for lesser sums, compared to the big-ticket U.S. indie films that generated buzz and headlines in 2005.

"The value is really to be seen in the fact that these movies find distribution, rather than the amount of money they generate with their sales," she adds.

Filippeli believes Toronto will inevitably oscillate between years where a strong U.S. indie field sparks bidding wars and years where the festival's European, Asian or Latin American films generate modest selling prices.

Cowan agrees, insisting Toronto's unofficial market is moving away from a Sundance model, in which a half-dozen films are sold for high prices, to one where market activity is spread over a growing slate of prestige, often subtitled, pictures.

"For what we perceive our job to be, having that much of the festival's lineup find distribution is more important," he says. "Big numbers tend to be about distributors' egos, panic about unfilled slates or concern for digital platforms driving these massive numbers."

But while Toronto's unofficial market appears to be remarkably effective, observers caution that fest organizers can't hold the reins on a more formal market forever since the event is planning to open its Festival Center in September 2009.

The five-story building, including five cinemas, two year-round galleries and a reference library, will be built at a cost of CAN$196 million (USD$189 million).

"That (Festival Center) will ... catapult (Toronto) to the next level, where a market is almost inevitable," says Michael Mosca, senior vp and COO of Montreal-based producer and distributor Equinoxe Films.    

Gregg Goldstein contributed to this report.
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