Toronto: Quiet Market Expected as Big Titles Remain Scarce

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP; AP Photo/Damain Dovarganes
'Truth,' which will star Robert Redford as Dan Rather, is one of the few big pre-sale titles in Toronto

TIFF remains a prime Oscar launchpad but there's little business around new projects

The film business isn’t exactly giving up on the Toronto Film Festival as a foreign sales market but in these lean times, many sales agents and foreign buyers have diminished expectations as they save their best ammunition for the American Film Market in November.

Of all the film markets, Toronto is arguably the quietest because of its proximity to AFM. And many of the foreign buyers occupy there time watching finished movies, versus prowling for projects at script stage. In some cases, foreign sales agents will take advantage of a movie’s screening in the festival to sell off foreign rights if those rights are still available. 

A lucky few did manage to come armed with new high-profile projects, including FilmNation, which will be shopping Truth, about the scandal that prompted Dan Rather’s exit from the anchor chair. On the eve of Toronto, Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment and Echo Lake came aboard to finance the indie film, starring Robert Redford as the iconic anchor and Cate Blanchett as the anchor’s disgraced producer Mary Mapes.

Other new presale offerings include Nice Guys, the newly announced Shane Black detective film teaming Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Alex Walton’s new sales outfit Bloom is shopping that film internationally (Warner Bros. has already scooped up domestic rights), while Sierra/Affinity is touting Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts, as well as Alexandre Aja’s The 9th Life of Louis Drax, featuring Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan. NuImage/Millennium are said to be shopping Criminal, starring Kevin Costner, Ryan Reynolds, Gary Oldman, Alice Eve and Tommy Lee Jones.

Festival titles that are being launched to buyers for the first time include Mister Smith Entertainment's Roger Waters: The Wall, a concert event film from the former Pink Floyd singer-songwriter.

“Honestly at this market, Lionsgate and others don’t bring big movies,” said Cindy Lin, CEO of Chinese distributor Infotainment. “So far the highest asking price is for the female version of The Expendables, and they haven’t locked the cast for that yet.”

Anna Marsh, head of international film sales for French giant StudioCanal admits Toronto is not a market “where companies send their entire sales force ... but if you are not there you totally miss the boat. It is not a good sign for your company to not be in Toronto.”

Big distributors from Berlin to Beijing cite talent bottlenecks – producers all chasing the same handful of A-list stars –as a primary reason for the lack of big titles in Toronto this year. Pulling together financing for big budget features has also gotten harder as Europe continues to hobble through its economic malaise and once-booming territories like Russia have been hit by political crisis.

“I think pre-sales to Russia will be basically non-existent,” said Alexander van Dulmen of A Company. “The political crisis in Ukraine has made everyone's uneasy and the fall in the Rubble, which has dropped 20 percent since last year, has hit our revenues hard.”

Southern Europe still hasn't recovered from the economic crash of 2008/2009 making pre-sales to former heavyweight territories such as Spain and Italy nearly impossible for anything that smells of risk.

"The [Spanish] distributors have to assume extraordinary risks, almost suicide, when taking on unfinished films,” said Adolfo Blanco, CEO of A Contracorriente Films. “That's why taking on pre-sales is more infrequent, except with big-budget titles with all-star casts."

Instead of scrambling through scripts hunting for the next Hunger Games, most acquisition execs plan to spend TIFF “checking out finished productions we've pre-bought or having informal talks about new projects,” said Rudiger Boss, acquisitions head at Germany's ProSiebenSat.1, who added: “Thank God, Toronto is not a real market. You don't have the craziness of Cannes or AFM.”

The festival's reputation as a launch pad for Oscar winners (see 12 Years A Slave, The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire et al) means buyers will be truffling through TIFF screenings looking the for the next undiscovered gem.

“Sussing out the award contenders coming in from Venice and Telluride is a big part of Toronto,” said Zak Brilliant, Head of Theatrical at UK's Icon Film Distribution. “You go to Toronto looking for a surprise,” said Boss of ProSiebenSat.1. “We bought Slumdog Millionaire there. There's always something unexpected that makes it worth the trip.”