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Netflix had no film titles at the Toronto Film Festival this year but set the tone at the virtual sales market by buying the Zendaya starrer Malcolm & Marie for $30 million, paying $20 million for Halle Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised, and an undisclosed sum for Pieces of a Woman, which stars Shia LaBeouf and The Crown star Vanessa Kirby, after its Venice debut. And Solstice Studios cut its own big check for Mark Wahlberg’s road movie Good Joe Bell from director Reinaldo Marcus Green, while Vertical Entertainment and Redbox Entertainment nabbed Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud.
But despite the eight-figure deals that lit up Toronto’s virtual market, virtual events couldn’t make up for the in-person experience of years past. “There’s nothing that can replicate the energy in those rooms, and there’s nothing that will create the sales environment that we used to have. But it did feel like a strong outcome and that’s still unfolding,” says Cinetic Media head of sales Eric Sloss.
The consensus is that film buyers in Toronto were hungry for new product but picky. Notes Jessica Lacy, a partner and head of independent and international film at ICM Partners, “For the right films, there was a strong appetite, and we received interest and offers on all our films.” ICM’s biggest sales of TIFF titles came ahead of the festival’s Sept. 10 kickoff, with Regina King’s One Night in Miami selling to Amazon and Spike Lee’s American Utopia, which opened Toronto, going to HBO. “But we were thrilled to see how well received both films were at the festival and we received a number of offers on Michel Franco’s latest film New Order and expect a deal to close soon,” Lacy added.
As movies during the pandemic increasingly pivot to digital platforms, streaming giants without theatrical worries unsurprisingly made the biggest deals in Toronto. “Agents know where the big sales will come from. They won’t come from IFC; they’ll come from Netflix and Amazon. They kind of had the pick of the litter,” says Arianna Bocco, executive vp acquisitions at IFC Films, which unveiled a deal at TIFF for Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI doc that concluded pre-festival.
But Toronto’s first-time virtual sales bazaar received a more muted reception. Bocco adds that she had a “fraction” of the Zoom meetings in Toronto compared with Cannes, where the volume and quality of projects on offer to buyers was greater. “It felt like there was an implicit agreement to wait for AFM and we’ll have a more structured setup like we did in Cannes,” says Bocco, noting that sales agents and distributors are looking for the Cannes Virtual Market template to reappear at the Santa Monica based market that runs Nov. 9 to 13.
Some sales agents did take advantage of Toronto offering private digital screening slots as part of its TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform. ICM Partners’ Lacy says her agency complimented TIFF’s digital platform with its own virtual screening events. “It was more a friendly check-in than a formal sales market. Most people are holding back stuff they will bring to AFM or Berlin,” said one TIFF market player.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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