Toronto: Pandemic Could Give Foreign Buyers a Leg Up as U.S. Box Office Struggles

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Courtesy of TIFF

With many theaters shuttered in the United States, dealmakers see a window of opportunity overseas for the kind of titles the festival specializes in: "We can definitely open a movie internationally right now."

In a normal year, scoring a big U.S. sale out of Toronto would be every indie filmmaker's dream. But 2020 is far from normal.

As the U.S. box office reopens and struggles to recover after a five-month shutdown, and with California and New York theaters still closed, it’s still possible that a hot TIFF title, if it doesn’t go straight to a streamer, could stay on the shelf for months before receiving a domestic release.

In contrast, cinemas in several international territories, including Korea, Japan, China and much of Western Europe, have been open for months now. Business isn’t exactly booming — social distancing requirements and other measures continue to put a damper on the box office — but business is being conducted.

For sales companies shopping their films in Toronto, that means a shift from the "America First" approach of the past and a new focus on international deals.

"Look at the performances of films that have come out in these territories in Europe and Asia and you see that, for the right indie film, there is absolutely a market there," says Sebastien Raybaud, CEO of European production and financing group Anton. "In the U.S. you have to be more creative and maybe a bit more cautious."

Anton’s Greenland, a Gerard Butler action movie, has grossed close to $10 million to date from a handful of international territories. In France, where Greenland opened at No. 1 on Aug. 19, the movie has earned some $3.5 million so far for distributor Metropolitan, a performance on par with Butler’s 2019 film Angel Has Fallen in the territory, despite playing to theaters operating at 50 percent capacity and fewer show times.

With less competition from studio tentpoles — Chris Nolan’s Tenet, which just opened in Europe, is the only major release — international distributors see a window of opportunity for indie releases, of the kind TIFF specializes in, that might not have scored screen space previously.

"There’s a real demand from cinemas, including multiplexes, for new quality films," says Paul Ridd, acquisitions exec at U.K. distributor Picturehouse, which opened Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth on Aug. 14 in 140 U.K. locations, a substantially larger than normal bow for an offbeat Australian comedy-drama from a first-time director.

"Our distributor in Benelux brought out Pinocchio there in July," adds Gabrielle Stewart of international sales outfit HanWay Films, which premiered Matteo Garrone’s live-action Italian-language version of the children’s classic in the Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg region. "They saw they had a moment when they’d be the only family film in theaters. It grossed more than $1 million."

For most English-language films, a U.S. release kicks off the global rollout, and international campaigns follow the American lead. For the time being, at least, that’s been upended: Greenland, Russell Crowe starrer Unhinged and even Tenet first bowed out-side the U.S. "I’m sure we’ll see it with many other films going forward,” says Raybaud. “We can definitely open a movie internationally right now, so that’s what we should be focused on."

The studios seem to agree. Even before Tenet, Warners brought its animated feature Scoob!, a direct-to-VOD release stateside, to theaters in France, earning a respectable $5.6 million. Sony’s bow of local-language title Father There Is Only One 2 in Spain grossed an impressive $8.4 million. Alex Walton, executive vp international sales at Endeavor, doesn’t see Beijing or Benelux as long-term replacements for those big domestic deals of TIFF markets past. But in a very dark time for the indie film business, the international markets are a sign of hope.

"It feels like things are beginning to open up again there," Walton says. "In France or Benelux, the fourth-weekend numbers for some films are better than their first weekend. It’s going in a positive direction."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.