Toronto Market Wrap: Studios Disappear From Dealmaking

'Hostiles'; 'I Love You, Daddy'; 'Disobedience'

A paradigm shift in the indie film world sees new buyers snapping up titles like 'I,Tonya' and 'Super-Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!'

For those needing proof of a paradigm shift in the indie film world, look no further than this year's Toronto market, which is winding down following the festival's wrap on Sept. 17. After all, not a single veteran distributor — including Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features — made a move on the domestic acquisition front. In fact, every significant acquisition deal was struck by a buyer who didn't exist five years ago — from A24 to The Orchard to Netflix.

Among the most active newbies was 30WEST, a hard-to-define company (because they both buy and sell films) launched in April by auto scion Dan Friedkin and former co-head of CAA's Finance and Sales Group Micah Green. At Toronto, 30WEST sold one film (Super-Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! to YouTube Red for $3.5 million) and bought two (I, Tonya with Neon for $5 million and Beast for just under $1 million). In the case of Beast, one of the best-reviewed films of the festival, the company doesn't even have a theatrical partner in place, which underscores 30WEST's enthusiasm for the project.

"It's true that there are a greater number of distribution companies and platforms available, but assembling a significant theatrical distribution partnership remains as challenging as ever," Green says.

Though many assumed Netflix would put the brakes on acquiring films considering its ambitious plans for up to 50 homegrown films a year, the streaming giant made a handful of splashy buys including nabbing the horror film The Ritual for $4.75 million. That deal nearly rivaled the price tag of I, Tonya and Louis C.K.'s I Love You, Daddy ($5 million to The Orchard). Other notable deals involving new players included Byron Allen's Entertainment Studios snapping up the Ted Kennedy drama Chappaquiddick and the Keanu Reeves sci-fi pic Replicas (both for $4 million).

But with the old-school distributors and even studios absent from deal-making, there were no all-night bidding wars to be found, signaling a cool market albeit with an infusion of new blood like A24, which nabbed Hot Summer Nights, the Australian crime thriller 1%, the Emma Thompson starrer The Children Act and Paul Schrader's thriller First Reformed. As of press time, the films most suited for an established player given their awards-season potential — like the $50 million Christian Bale Western Hostiles or the Rachel Weisz-Rachel McAdams lesbian drama Disobedience — remain available.

As for why the market felt muted, there were several explanations: A dismal summer box office left buyers feeling cautious, and most of the films debuting at the festival came in with distribution in place, including Amazon/Annapurna's Brad's Status, which had the highest per-screen average for the weekend ending Sept. 17.

Another possible explanation for the slow movement is that publicists and agents say they were hampered by the festival's repeated delays producing attendance reports from press-and-industry screenings (such reports, which are typically available 20 minutes after a screening starts, help sellers gauge what buyers were on hand and give them leverage in any negotiations).

Further exacerbating the problem, festival staff prevented publicists from flipping over ID badges to scan the barcode, citing security reasons. Five days after his film Don't Talk to Irene screened, Jazo PR's Laurent Boye still had no report from the festival, a scenario echoed by a number of festival veterans. When he complained to TIFF, he received a terse response that made no mention of the issue. "At the end of the day, I would like them to sit down with us and see how we can improve things as there is a lot of room to improve," Boye says.

Another awards-season publicist complained that he had received no reports from the festival, and "films started so late that we would have high-level [audience members] leaving." Given that it was an already chilly market being dominated by the upstarts, those issues were likely one too many.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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