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Director Stephen Chbosky called the opening night of 2021 Toronto International Film Festival — which kicked off with Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen September 9 — “the opening night of cinema in North America.”
As TIFF rolls through its first weekend, the Toronto festival and film market seemed more subdued than celebratory. Strict Covid travel restrictions meant few industry execs have made the trip up North, preferring the safety of Zoom meetings and Toronto’s online market.
“We do have films playing in the (Toronto) festival, but its seems like most of the industry is not attending this year. So it feels like it’s probably a festival that we can attend virtually this year,” IFC Films president Arianna Bocco told THR after doing business on the ground in Telluride.
Those who did brave the trip were faced with major delays — four hours or more — coming in from New York and L.A. And TIFF red carpets and gala premieres have been muted affairs. Limited capacity screenings have put a damper on the typically raucous Toronto audiences and with few major stars attending — in sharp contrast to the VIP-studded Venice Film Festival last week — there’ve been no mobs of screaming fans crowding the Toronto streets around major venues like the Roy Thompson Hall and Bell Lightbox on King Street.
Film buyers skipping the flight to Toronto also follows TIFF for the second year running dramatically shrinking its film lineup to around 100 titles — far down from the 280 to 300 movies pre-pandemic and which had film buyers complaining they couldn’t take in the full breadth of cinematic offerings in Toronto, especially during the front-end loaded first weekend.
Toronto’s pandemic-impacted market this year has also refashioned a film bazaar where, in earlier years, major buyers filled seats at Roy Thomson Hall and the Elgin and Princess of Wales Theatres on Saturday night especially to guage whether TIFF’s first weekend acquisition titles were worth bidding on well into Sunday morning, and where the risk was paying over the odds, or whether they might keep their powder dry and pay less for titles towards the end of the festival or at AFM.
The more somber mood this year suited the atmosphere on Saturday, which marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 2001 Toronto Festival was at its mid-way point on Tuesday morning, September 11, when news of the attacks on the World Trade Center first broke. Planes were grounded for days and TIFF organizers struggled with a decision to cancel or finish the festival (they decided to finish).
But while Toronto 2021 might be lacking the buzz and glamor of pre-COVID fests, the pure market side of the business continues to tick over virtually for the second year running. “The good news/bad news is we’re becoming very experienced at these virtual festivals,” Kent Sanderson, president of acquisitions and ancillary distribution at indie distributor Bleecker Street, insists.
Toronto has never been a major market for pre-sales — most packages come in earlier, in Berlin or Cannes, or later for the American Film Market — put there have been a fair number of mid-sized projects pitched to TIFF buyers this year. FilmNation, CAA Media Finance, and WME kicked off sales on We All Die Young, a drama set in the rap world with Justice Smith, Idris Elba, and Taylour Paige attached to star, a script from Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and with Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank, Paper Towns) on board to direct. Endeavor Content unveiled its noir drama Sniff featuring Morgan Freeman, Danny DeVito, Al Pacino, and Helen Mirren, and Embankment spurred interest in its upcoming biopic Joika, about elite American ballet dancer Joy Womack, after announcing Diane Kruger has signed on to star alongside Never Rarely Sometimes Always actor Talia Ryder. Embankment, which closed multiple pre-sales on Joika, including for Germany, Italy, Australia, and Spain, before Toronto, is co-repping U.S. rights on the film with UTA Independent Film Group.
Sales executives, whether on the ground or Zoom-ing in from home offices worldwide, said distributors are still hungry for films. “There’s still that huge demand for content,” said Janina Vilsmaier, head of sales at Protagonist Pictures, which is screening their (sold-out) Spanish-language comedy Official Competition, starring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, in Toronto. “We’ve been doing good business at every film market since the start of the pandemic.”
“The big difference in Toronto this year is there aren’t as many finished films available for acquisition. The production slowdown we saw because of COVID is still having an impact with fewer projects available for acquisition,” notes JJ Caruth of The Avenue, Highland Film Group’s domestic distribution arm. “But I think we’re already starting to see that change and we should have a robust slate of finished films from Sundance next year.”
Film execs also noted that, after attending Cannes and Venice in quick succession, it felt right to use zoom calls for the informal Toronto film market this year to catch up with producers and other industry types before returning to deal-making in earnest at AFM.
In the meantime, Berry Meyerowitz, co-president of Quiver Distribution, said continuing demand for content to feed expanding streaming platforms worldwide, not to mention unprecedented industry disruption, has his indie outfit moving strongly into production as it diversifies beyond distribution. “I never would have thought three or four years ago that we’d be in production and financing movies, but it’s the only way we can be masters of our own schedule and not be at the whim of what the marketplace is offering us,” he said.
The industry is also betting that theaters will stay open through the fall and that cinema-goers will eventually return. The spectacular performance for Disney/Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, which followed up a record $94.4 million 4-day Labor Day bow with an estimated $31.8 second weekend, has sparked hopes of a theatrical revival.
For the indie business, however, the performance of films like Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, which premiered in Venice and Focus Features is rolling out stateside this weekend, could be more indicative. The film is on target to make around $1.05 million from 580 locations.
So far, however, the arthouse and specialty audience has not returned in force.
“People are still on cotton balls, uncertain, especially the older audience” which is the target group for most arthouse films, notes Fernando Sulchin, a producer on Sean Penn’s Flag Day, which MGM opened to lackluster business August 20. The numbers seem to back that up. While the U.S. summer box office is around 60 percent of that of 2019, arthouse ticket sales are closer to 30 to 35 percent of their pre-pandemic levels.
The big test for theatrical will come through the fall with the release of major titles from Legendary and Warner Bros.’ sci-fi epic Dune, to Neon’s Lady Di biopic Spencer starring Kristen Stewart, WB’s Will Smith-starrer King Richard and Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, to Wes Anderson’s star-studded The French Dispatch.
There is certainly no lack of product. Former Searchlight Pictures chairman Steve Gilula, in a TIFF Visionaries talk earlier this week, noted that Netflix alone plans to make “around 42 movies before the end of the year.” But, Gilula warned, the “firehose of content” has made it a “volatile time for independent filmmakers.”
The small break-out festival hits of the past — he pointed to Room (2015) and Moonlight (2016), two TIFF titles “with unknown directors and unknown casts” that went on to awards and crossover commercial success— “might not get recognized” in the new streaming world.
“The ability of these small movies to be really recognized has become much more difficult,” said Gilula. “Which means what [TIFF] is doing, celebrating unknown films and filmmakers, has become more important than ever.”
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The Many Saints of Newark