Toronto: Indies Struggle in a Movie Market Looking for Sure Things

Courtesy of TIFF
HanWay is selling foreign rights to 'The Burnt Orange Heresy,' which has its North American premiere Sept. 11 at TIFF.

Amid high-profile festival fizzles at the box office, insiders predict cautious dealmaking: "Anything that isn't a big, studio-sized release is a hard sell."

There’s a chill in the air, and it’s not just the Lake Ontario breeze. As the Toronto market kicks off, buyers and sellers are feeling the aftereffects of a summer that wasn’t particularly kind to independently financed festival fare.

At Sundance, Amazon and New Line spent like it was Prime Day and got hammered at the summer box office, with the former’s Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon and the latter’s Blinded by the Light domestically mustering up just north of $27 million all told — compared with their collective $42 million price tags. Even summer breakout The Farewell, which was bought by A24 for $7 million and has earned $16 million to date, isn’t profitable yet (distributors typically split theatrical receipts with exhibitors plus pay for prints and advertising).

How buyers respond in Toronto — a market that skews more international than Sundance — remains to be seen. On paper, there seem to be few available films at the finished stage that could whip a room into a frenzy, prompting many agents to screen their titles ahead of the festival. And it’s somewhat slim pickings on the presales front.

"I don’t see it getting better. I see it getting worse," says Jason Cloth of Creative Wealth Media, which co-financed Joker and has slate deals with Warner Bros. and MGM but has backed smaller films like Beatriz at Dinner and The Nightingale in recent years. "Anything that isn’t a big, studio-sized release is a hard sell."

That big-swing mind-set was on display at the most recent Cannes market, where Paramount beat out smaller players for the Chris Hemsworth-Tiffany Haddish actioner Down Under Cover, which FilmNation sold. But privately, buyers griped that FilmNation was using indie distributors to bid up its films only to flip them to a major, earning the company the nickname "FlipNation." And the major studios also are forcing foreign sales agents to adjust their game plans.

"The studios are buying a lot more internationally, they almost never just buy domestic anymore," says Gabrielle Stewart of HanWay, which is selling foreign rights to The Burnt Orange Heresy. "So you have to keep a few of the big territories open for them." The proliferation of streamers, from oldguard players like Netflix and Amazon to newbies such as Quibi, might help buoy overall prices. Agents say HBO Max and Apple seem best poised to buy and have been aggressive with their pre-market coverage of available titles. And if they pounce early and often, expect that to prompt a ripple effect with the traditional players.

"I do think there will be a competitive market for those who have been around for a while, the Magnolias and the IFCs," says ICM’s Kristen Konvitz. "And now that all of the new streaming platforms are buying to build their pipelines, I think there’s going to be a more even playing field. It is still a bit of unchartered waters, but they are going to come looking to find content. In particular, Apple, for something that suits their brand. All of these new services are looking to hit the marketplace running."

Etan Vlessing contributed to this report. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 6 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.