Toronto: When Money and A-Listers Aren't Enough to Secure a Domestic Distributor

'Vox Lux' Still - H Publicity 2018

It's easier than ever to lock financing and talent, but the demise of Global Road and The Weinstein Co. has created a bottleneck for indies seeking that all-important U.S. theatrical release.

Some of the biggest films screening in Toronto this year — Natalie Portman-starrer Vox Lux, Sam Taylor-Johnson's Fifty Shades of Grey follow-up A Million Little Pieces with Charlie Hunnam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Xavier Dolan’s English-language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan starring Portman and Kit Harington — have something in common. In addition to featuring A-list casts and major buzz, they, at the time of this writing, are still hunting for a U.S. distributor.

And they’re not alone. High-profile indie titles — the Jesse Eisenberg-Alexander Skarsgard drama The Hummingbird Project, Justin Kelly’s Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, High Life with Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche — are everywhere at TIFF, which boasts one of its strongest-ever lineups.

An influx of private capital into the indie film business the past few years has made it easier for producers to get these kind of movies made. But getting them shown in theaters is proving tougher than ever. The recent bankruptcy of newbie distributor Global Road, following on the collapse of The Weinstein Co. and Broad Green, has further tightened what has become the biggest bottleneck for independent film: securing theatrical distribution, particularly in North America.

“From a financier’s perspective – there is a lot of capital available to fund films now, so the days of having to cobble together a handful of investors is not as commonplace,” says Amy Nauiokas, founder of indie shingle Archer Gray and a producer on Marielle Heller’s TIFF title Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant (which Fox Searchlight is releasing in the U.S.).

International buyers, which in the past would jump on mainstream titles with A-list casts, also have become more selective. A decline in ancillary revenue from home video and TV sales has meant foreign distributors are hesitant to board a title unless they are confident it can deliver a theatrical audience.

“Our partners are looking for wide-release theatrical titles, so domestic distribution is a really important factor for them,” says John Friedberg, president of international sales at STX Entertainment, which has output deals in place in about 90 percent of international territories and does domestic releases for its films in house.

Participant Media CEO David Linde, whose TIFF lineup includes Peter Farrelly’s Green Book and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, says the old, one-size-fits-all approach no longer works as U.S. distributors become increasingly specialized in the kinds of films they release.

“You have to be very, very attentive to the issues arising around distribution at the moment and to adapt your business accordingly,” says Linde. “The strategy that works in Toronto this year will be different from the one that works in 2019.”

This story also appears in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 8 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.