Magic Carpet

Can Toronto's increased glitz factor provide a boost to a beleaguered indie film sector?

TORONTO -- Anxious dealmakers at the Toronto International Film Festival will be seeing red this year -- in more ways than one.

In a symbolic gesture that speaks volumes about TIFF's eagerness to boost its already-significant glitz quotient, organizers have decided to extend the red carpet outside Roy Thomson Hall by an entire city block.

At first glance it might seem like a small move, but there's more to it than merely turning up the star wattage. The hope is that more dapper celebs posing in front of a larger press pool will give cash-strapped producers a better shot at plugging gala premieres and, hopefully, securing North American distribution.

Indeed, with the indies still reeling from the global financial crisis, Toronto's red-carpet makeover comes at a time when buyers are facing a glut of product financed in better times, while U.S. distributors struggle, shrink or close their doors all together.

"There are a lot of films that are becoming available because of the capital available a year and a half ago," ICM's indie division chief Hal Sadoff says. "Those films are being delivered now, and the festival has selected the more commercial among them to attract distributors."

All of which leaves film sellers nervous about their prospects in Toronto during a buyer's market. But Toronto, with its awards-season cachet and devoted, discerning fan base, at least offers the opportunity for an early peak at how a film might perform with the art house crowd. Producers appear resigned to the fact that dealmaking will be scarce, but for many there is no choice other than to hope for the best.

"It's a great festival, but the market is very bad," says Michele Halberstadt, head of French distributor ARP Selection, which is bringing Johnnie To's "Vengeance" to Toronto for a North American bow after Cannes. "So I'm not sure how Toronto will translate into business. But it's the best shot I have."

Halberstadt insists any distributor worried about how a North American audience will react to a foreign-language film -- To's Hong Kong actioner includes English, French and a Cantonese dialect -- prizes Toronto as a testing ground. "It's not an intellectual festival," she says. "It's not pretentious. It's a good feeling. It's a good atmosphere."

Even Toronto's opening-night film, Jon Amiel's Charles Darwin romancer "Creation," which stars husband-and-wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, awaits an American suitor.

"It's a very nervous market," says Tim Haslam, CEO of Hanway Films, who will be shopping "Creation" to skittish distributors in Toronto. "You have to respond to that, to understand how distributors are feeling, that they need the reassurance of the audience and perhaps some critical reaction as well."

Former Picturehouse chief Bob Berney, bound for Toronto as head of new distribution outfit Apparition, says his immediate priority will be generating buzz for Jane Campion's literary romance "Bright Star" ahead of its mid-September theatrical release, and Jean-Marc Vallee's 19th century royal drama "The Young Victoria," which will close the festival before its Nov. 13 release date.

Marketwise, Berney says he'll be eyeing acquisitions in Toronto, but only must-have films, given the challenging theatrical market.

"Even with a small release, you have to be very sure about the deal, about the economics, and (whether) you really feel you can find an audience. There's not a lot of room for error," he says.

Echo Lake's Doug Mankoff is bringing the Demi Moore and David Duchovny-starring dramedy "The Joneses" to Toronto for a world bow with all territories up for grabs. The good news, Mankoff insists, is foreign buyers know they can no longer wait as they once did to see how a film fares on U.S. release, and whether serious marketing muscle gets behind it, before deciding whether to pull the trigger for their own markets.

"The foreign buyers realize that quick U.S. distribution deals are happening much more seldom than before," he says. "So if they want an advantage, they need to jump on films that might take a little longer to develop a U.S. deal, and that they have to take some sort of a chance."

The indie film scene's money famine is so deep, promising TIFF titles like Jordan Scott's "Cracks," which is executive produced by father Ridley Scott and stars Eva Green, will also use Toronto as a springboard to a North American deal.

Hence the value of a public screening in Toronto.

"What's great about Toronto is the audience, which is sophisticated and also enthusiastic," Mankoff insists. "They're not jaded. They're looking for new voices."

Mockingbird Pictures president Julie Lynn, a co-producer of writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's "Mother and Child," hopes she's got the Toronto alchemy just right as she brings her ensemble adoption drama starring Annette Bening and Naomi Watts to Roy Thomson Hall for a gala Sept. 14 bow.

"For a small film like ours that doesn't have distribution, it's a really a long time between Roy Thomson Hall and release," she says. "So hopefully the distributors get a buzz about how supportive the audience is of the film, and we get the word out to audiences everywhere."

With money so tight, generating sales buzz in Toronto is more pivotal than ever for smaller productions hoping to avoid falling through the cracks.

For Dean Zanuck, a producer on "Get Low," an indie pic booked into Roy Thomson Hall on the first Saturday night for a glitzy launch, the stakes couldn't be higher. "We don't have the resources that a studio film has," he says. "Toronto is not this huge press junket with a September release on 3,000 screens."

The Bill Murray/Robert Duvall period-piece thriller from the Zanuck Co. is instead looking to generate noise and good reviews so U.S. distributors will hopefully jostle for Zanuck's attention, either in Toronto or down the road. Zanuck says that even a seemingly innocuous move -- like expanding that red carpet -- could pay dividends down the line.

"We have our little film and our cast and a handful of people looking out for us, so the expansion of media coverage on the night allows us to get our little film out there, and in a very broad way."
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