Remember 'Top Five'? 'Can a Song Save Your Life'? Beware the TIFF Hype

Top Five Still  - H 2015
Ali Paige Goldstein/Paramount Pictures

Top Five Still  - H 2015

Toronto's splashy sales and Oscar predictions haven't always translated to real-world success in recent years.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Toronto Film Festival long has been touted as both the kickoff of Oscar season and a key market for finished films. But a closer look at the recent slates and sales begs the question: Does the fest still live up to the hype?

On the awards front, last year's best picture Oscar winner, Birdman, skipped Toronto altogether in favor of Venice and Telluride. The year before, best picture champ 12 Years a Slave played Toronto but only after Telluride. "We didn't go to Toronto because we didn't get into Toronto," says Birdman producer John Lesher. "We showed it to them as an early cut. Let's just say folks at Toronto weren't as enthu­siastic as everyone else was."

As for sales, last year's Chris Rock comedy Top Five sparked a bidding war, with Paramount paying $12.5 million for worldwide rights. But the film — given a wide release in 1,426 theaters — fell below expectations with $25 mil­lion worldwide.

Similarly, at the 2013 festival, The Weinstein Co. beat out Lionsgate and others for Can a Song Save Your Life? (retitled Begin Again). The $7 million price tag — along with a hefty $20 million prints and advertising commitment — set a high watermark for the festival. There even was talk of a live tour, with the film's co-star Adam Levine said to be on board. The tour never materialized, and the Keira Knightley-Mark Ruffalo romance only earned $16 million domestic. At that same festival, Focus paid about $7 million for worldwide rights to Jason Bateman's raunchy directo­rial debut, Bad Words, which ended up grossing $8 million (the film never played theatrically overseas).

"I don't think Toronto suffers from overhype," counters CAA's Micah Green, who was involved in the Begin Again and Bad Words sales. "In each of the last several years, there have only been one or two films which broke through to a $5 million-plus sale, while a larger number of others have sold quickly in the $1 million to $3 mil­lion range. It's been a fairly consistent market that way." Indeed, while the big deals grab headlines, the Toronto market's sweet spot still is the less-than-$3 million sales that go on to receive platform releases, like 2014's Love & Mercy, which was bought by Roadside for $3 million and has earned $12 million since its June 5 release. Still Alice, an Alzheimer's drama that CAA brought to last year's market with little hoopla, sold to Sony Pictures Classics for low-seven figures. Julianne Moore then won the best actress Oscar, and the film grossed $19 million domestic.

So Lesher, for one, isn't abandoning Toronto. He'll be at the festival this year with Johnny Depp's Black Mass — though it first will play at Venice and Telluride.