Toronto feels chill of indie film downturn

Fest director: 'The years of bidding wars are over'

TORONTO -- With its fortunes tied to indie film, the Toronto International Film Festival during the last three years has seen its film market swing from boom to bust and now upbeat.

As both a market and a launch-pad for fall titles, TIFF remains an essential barometer for indie film in terms of high-profile pictures, stars and distribution deals.

The 2008 edition of TIFF saw Summit Entertainment pay top dollar for Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," while Fox Searchlight snapped up Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," with Mickey Rourke's comeback performance, after a first-weekend bidding war.

To top it off, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" picked up the 2008 People's Choice Award in Toronto, voted on by festival audiences, after a world premiere here.

But TIFF, like rival festivals internationally, struggled last year as indie film buyers and sellers ran into a crisis-era market.

Bidding wars never emerged, and the only seven-figure deals were The Weinstein Company acquiring Tom Ford's "A Single Man" and Sony Worldwide Acquisitions' purchase of Canadian director Peter Stebbings' "Defendor."

Elsewhere, a slew of high-profile indie pics that came into Toronto without North American distribution deals went home empty-handed, and had to wait until after the festival, and especially to AFM, for reluctant distributors to finally pull the trigger on deals.

With Toronto now gearing up for a new Sept. 9 to 19 installment, hope springs anew among festival organizers that the industry gloom from the 2009 financial market meltdown may be lifting.

"The years of bidding wars are over," cautioned Toronto festival director Piers Handling.

But deals will get done, Handling added, just not at the festival, with acquisition titles in Toronto more likely to sell in the weeks and months after the festival wraps.

"Every festival has noticed this: Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, where a lot of deals used to be done. It's definitely a buyer's market. Buyers can sit and wait for prices to come down, assess whether they actually want to invest the resources," he said.

Toronto has made only its first programming announcements so far, with roughly 80% of its lineup still be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Festival co-director Cameron Bailey predicts roughly half of the festival's 270 to 280 films this September will be eyeing U.S. distribution.

"There's lots of acquisition titles coming in this year. Robert Redford's 'The Conspirator' will come without a distributor, and that's one all the buyers will be looking to see," he said.

Other high-profile acquisition titles already announced for Toronto include Emilio Estevez' "The Way," a family drama that stars Martin Sheen, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful," which earned a best-actor prize for Javier Bardem at Cannes, and Barry Blaustein's "Peep World."

Whether these and other acquisition titles will get picked up in Toronto any faster than last year, Bailey is uncertain.

"It might be a little quicker this year, or that may just be the new reality. It's hard to say," he said of slow buying times in 2009.

Even when Toronto titles are bought, either before, during or after the festival, acquisition prices will be lower than might have been secured in better times.

"Advances are decreasing, so people are not getting as much money for their films," Handling observed.

"Films that used to have bidding wars in the past, especially in the States because there's only one or two key companies left, there's a buyers market today. Whether that will continue for how many years, no one knows at this stage of the game," he added.

Away from the market, even the Toronto festival will feel the cold wind of the studio and indie film downturn.

"Everyone is looking at their bottom line. They plan shorter stays at the festival. The parties will be toned down, or producers will hold smaller sit-down dinners," Handling predicted.

But Toronto's role in introducing Oscar contenders or fall titles remains strong, he adds.

"People still see this (festival) as an important launch-pad. If they have a film they want to launch in the fall, or for the awards season, there's still lots of pressure to get those films to Toronto," Handling said.