Toronto: Market Should Be Brisk Despite Spotty Track Record for Recent Big Festival Sales

Toronto International Film Festival
"While We're Young"

Last year, "Bad Words" sold for $7 million but underperformed at the box office

The past year proved to be a bumpy ride for independent films at the box office. But with a handful of new buyers on site, this year's Toronto market is poised to continue the brisk pace set by last year's festival as well as a seller-friendly Sundance in January and Cannes in May.

In fact, sellers remain optimistic that there will be plenty of significant acquisitions out of Toronto, where a flood of star-driven projects are looking for a U.S. home.

This year's lineup encompasses a wide range of titles with commercial potential including Chris Rock's semi-autobiographical comedy Top Five comedy and Noah Baumbach's examination of coupledom While We're Young – both produced by Scott Rudin. Other titles generating buzz are the Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy, the Tobey Maguire chess drama Pawn Sacrifice, Tom McCarthy's The Cobbler (featuring Adam Sandler) and Oren Moverman's  Time Out of Mind with Richard Gere as a homeless man.

But a look at the big sellers from recent festivals might give buyers pause. Several high-profile 2013 Toronto titles either bombed or didn’t live up to expectations. Falling into the latter category was Begin Again (formerly titled Can a Song Save Your Life). The Weinstein Company plunked down a record-setting $7 million (plus a $20 million prints-and-advertising commitment) for U.S. rights to the music-themed film, which has earned $16 million domestically to date. Similarly, Focus Features scooped up worldwide rights to the Jason Bateman-helmed R-rated comedy Bad Words for $7 million. The film's less than $8 million haul in the U.S. barely eclipsed its sale price.

Among the duds was the Daniel Radcliffe relationship pic What If (formerly titled The F Word), for which CBS Films paid $3 million for U.S. rights at Toronto. Despite high hopes of breaking out thanks to Radcliffe's Harry Potter fame, the film took in just $3 million domestically. Similarly, at Sundance, Focus paid $2.75 million for Zach Braff’s Garden State follow-up Wish I Was Here, which crashed and burned, earning less than $4 million Stateside. Other high-profile indie disappointments in recent months include the Robert Pattinson The Rover, which earned just north of $1 million domestically.

So why aren’t buyers and sellers frowning as they arrive in Toronto? “The spring and summer certainly were good for some independent films, so I think people are relatively bullish,” says Roadside Attractions chief Howard Cohen. Roadside’s A Most Wanted Man, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman opposite Rachel McAdams, has grossed $15 million since its July 25 release.

Despite the disappointments, the indie marketplace has plenty of recent success stories including Grand Budapest Hotel, Belle, Wanted Man, Boyhood, Snowpiercer and Chef. Buyers looking for the next indie breakout typically find no better launching pad than the annual Toronto festival.

Several new U.S. distributors will be in the mix this year, making for more competition. They include former Focus Features executive Andrew Karpen’s Bleecker Street, backed by billionaire Manoj Bhargava; Haim Saban’s Saban Films and EuropaCorp, which has a new distribution deal with Relativity. “I think there is a big appetite for product,” says UTA’s Rena Ronson. ICM’s Jessica Lacy agrees, “These new buyers are going to be hungry for product."

Just how hungry remains to be seen. 

“There are a lot of films that could make sense for our business model, which is cast-driven, commercial product, or prestige titles,” said Saban Films president Bill Bromiley.

Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27

Twitter: @PamelaDayM

Sept. 4, 8:11 p.m. An earlier version of this story referred to Time Out of Mind as Before We Go. THR regrets the error.