The Toronto International Film Festival isn’t as well-known for dealmaking as Sundance, and the clamor around Oscar-friendly titles tends to dominate, but buyers attending the festival always have a lot of possibilities to dig through. Many of the roughly 200 feature films screening the the biggest fall festival arrive without distribution.
In the past, TIFF has yielded plenty of big deals, including some that impact awards season, such as Neon’s $6 million 2017 pickup of “I, Tonya” that resulted in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Allison Janney and Sony Pictures Classics’ 2014 acquisition of “Still Alice” that ultimately landed Julianne Moore her first statuette for Best Actress. Even during the pandemic, the sales continued: In 2020, Netflix picked up Halle Berry’s directorial debut “Bruised” for a reported $20 million after it premiered at a drive-in.
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Still, buyers aren’t exactly bullish on acquisitions these days, as arthouse box office continues to struggle on every level, and successes such as A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” make the case for in-house productions over festival pickups. National Geographic’s Sundance buy “Fire of Love” recently crossed $1 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing documentary of the year, but a pittance compared to pre-pandemic times (by this time 2019, eight documentaries had grossed over $3 million). Meanwhile, streamers such as Netflix that once dominated the market have grown more conservative in their choices, while smaller distributors often have to wait for price points to drop.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some serious sales action at TIFF.
Buyers with Hulu output deals range from Neon to Roadside Attractions, which could give them an upper hand as they look for opportunities to flesh out their slates. IFC continues to develop its AMC relationship with genre label Shudder, and could be scouring the midnight offerings. International cinema continues to hold appeal to streamers eager for global content as they expand into new territories. With all of those possibilities in play, these companies’ acquisitions teams may be overwhelmed by their options at this year’s festival. Here’s one place to start: the 15 movies that could sell big at this year’s festival.
Dame Judi Dench reteams with “Notes on a Scandal” director Richard Eyre for this adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play, which takes place in a Yorkshire hospital dominated by elderly patients. The story centers on the efforts of one Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders, “Absolutely Fabulous”) as she brings in a news crew to document concert preparations to save off threats to close the facility down by the Minister of Health. Dench is among the color patients who complicate the proceedings, as the movie promises a charming and upbeat crowdpleaser that could appeal to older audiences.
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (UTA)
Miami-based filmmaker Aitch Alberto’s debut centers on the romance between two Mexican-American teenagers (newcomers Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzalez) in El Paso circa 1987. The movie is adapted from Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel and finds the young characters coping with their developing bond despite the repression around them and complications involving their families. Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and “CODA” star Eugenio Derbez (who also has a supporting role), the story suggests a rare and intimate look at queerness from a Latino perspective in a rarely-glimpsed corner of American society.
Rekha Garton and Marcel Zyskind
“American Psycho” director Mary Harron’s closing night TIFF entry stars Ben Kingsley as eccentric Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, as his life is glimpsed by his assistant (Christopher Birney). Yes, scandal-ridden Ezra Miller plays a young Dalí, but the bulk of the movie is said to revolve around the later period of the surrealist’s life as the story shifts between New York and Spain in 1973. That’s when Dalí’s marriage to his lifelong muse Gala (Barbara Sukowa) started to show signs of strain, a premise that could appeal to buyers looking for a starry, highbrow drama.
Mercedes Bryce Morgan’s debut features “Malignant” star Maddie Hasson as a young woman locked up in an insane asylum after she commits a crime she can’t recall. Within the confines of the psychiatric ward, she begins to hallucinate, and the movie follows her down the rabbit hole. An intriguing genre effort that promises complex themes about victimhood and resilience that may extend beyond the genre crowd. Buyers keen on getting into the business with young filmmaking talent may want to check this one out.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” (CAA)
Daniel Goldhaber’s follow-up to his 2018 sleeper hit “Cam” is a different type of psychological thriller. A kind of neorealist heist movie with a neorealist twist, the movie is inspired by Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book, which suggests that sabotaging an oil pipeline is the only effective means of fighting climate change. That’s exactly what the young protagonists attempt to do here, setting their sights on their target in West Texas as their plan slowly comes together. A timely look at the frustrations of youth in the modern age of environmental crises, the movie’s premise suggests a unique genre hook for its subject that should make distributors keen on attention-grabbing material to perk up.
“The Grab” (WME)
Gabriela Cowperthwaite follows up her seminal SeaWorld indictment “Blackfish” with a shocking investigative look at mysterious land grabs by foreign countries. Beginning with the revelation that China secretly bought a company that owns one out of every four pigs in the United States, the movie expands to look at the way foreign entities have accelerated efforts to acquire America’s natural resources to stave off their own dwindling supplies. With its revelatory details and seasoned journalist Nathan Halverson at its center, “The Grab” is the sort of eye-opening documentary sure to generate a lot of attention, like “Food Inc.” and “Supersize Me” before it. That should get the attention of streamers keen on picking up must-see content for their subscribers.
“Maya and the Wave” (30 West)
Director Stephanie Jones tracks Brazilian surf star Maya Gabeira as she navigates both the waves themselves and a male-dominated sport that attempts to stymie her career. Instead, she soars, as the movie promises a rousing look at her athleticism in addition to the many challenges that held her back. Jones focuses on Gabeira’s efforts to break a world record while recounting the challenges she faces with her successful parents (fashion designer Yamé Reis and politician Fernando Gabeira). Expect a riveting visual feast with a rousing, real-world heroine at its center.
“Moving On” (UTA)
“Grace and Frankie” brought Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin back to the zeitgeist with a hit Netflix show; now, this movie promises to keep that going. In director Paul Weitz’s comedy, the pair play estranged old friends who had a falling out over 40 years ago. When a mutual friend dies, the pair decide to reunite in a bizarre plan to kill their late friend’s husband (Malcolm McDowell). From there, “Moving On” becomes a pitch-black comedy about killer instincts, almost certainly bolstered by the charisma of its leads. Weitz, meanwhile, whose recent credits include Netflix’s “Fatherhood” and “Mozart in the Jungle,” has a reliable enough track record to assume that this one will deliver as the same sort of crowdpleaser that kept “Grace and Frankie” fans so engaged across seven seasons.
It’s been 10 years since John Hyams’ stunning “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” and he’s overdue for another unexpected hit. This time, he’s directed a slasher movie penned by no less than “Scream” writer Kevin Williamson, and it comes with a timely hook: A pair of friends (Gideon Adlon and Beth Million) quarantine at a cabin during the pandemic when a masked killer shows up and ruins the peaceful vibes. Expect a lean, visceral series of showdowns as Hyams’ action instincts creep into a taught minimalist thriller with plenty of genre tricks that should appeal to buyers bullish on the lasting appeal of horror.
“Saint Omer” (CAA/Wild Bunch)
Documentary filmmaker Alice Diop’s first narrative feature is an absorbing look at a young novelist (Kayije Kagame) whose attempt to write a new version of the Medea myth finds her scrutinizing the courtroom case of an immigrant woman who murdered her own daughter. These lengthy observations are paired with the writer’s solitary experiences as she plans to give birth and contemplates the challenges faced by Black women that continue to percolate across modern-day France. Boasting elegant cinematography by Claire Mathon (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) and a script co-written by Marie NDiaye (“White Material”), the movie is a probing look at societal frustration from the inside out, and promises to elevate Diop as a major international filmmaker. It’s also one of a handful of French films that could wind up as the country’s Oscar submission this month.
“The People’s Joker” (UTA)
Writer-director-star Vera Drew’s queer satire is far cry from Todd Phillips’ dreary version of the DC supervillain. Here, Drew plays a clown who struggles with her trans identity as she attempts to become a part of a popular comedy show themed around the Joker. The movie’s DIY approach seems to offer a breezy take on modern-day comic book fandom that rewires obsession with these characters in a fresh milieu. Over 100 artists contributed to the movie in a crowdsourced quarantine project, and the result should excite buyers looking for an original take on existing blockbuster tropes.
“Patrick and the Whale” (Submarine)
Not to be confused with the aforementioned “Maya and the Wave,” veteran wildlife director Mark Fletcher follows the efforts of accomplished marine videographer Patrick Dystra as he spends years tracking all kinds of whales and gets close to them in the process. Keen on learning more about whale intelligence, Dystra’s work provides a unique window into animal intelligence in tandem with the visual splendor of seeing the world’s largest mammals in extraordinary detail. If there were any TIFF documentary with the potential to make an impact on the big screen, it might be this one.
“Prisoner’s Daughter” (UTA/Capstone)
“Succession” fans eager to see Brian Cox’s range beyond Logan Roy will be excited for “Prisoner’s Daughter,” which stars the veteran actor as a dying convict and Kate Beckinsale as the granddaughter he attempts to forge a connection with in his final days. “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke guides this through a series of emotional twists that could be just powerful enough to result in an actors showcase. But Cox’s late-period star power is enough to make this one stand out to buyers on the basis of his existing appeal.
Zachary Wigon (“The Heart Machine”) directs this tense two-hander off a screenplay by “Homecoming” creator Micah Bloomberg, but the real selling point is its cast: Margaret Qualley plays a committed dominatrix and Christopher Abbott is her wealthy heir client. Over the course of a tense, real-drama drama, the pair go through a series of rehearsed sexual motions before the tension rises and questions about their future together bubble to the surface. Qualley delivers a daring, sensual, and altogether shocking turn as a fierce woman determined to take control of her circumstances despite the powerful systems seemingly beyond her grasp, while Abbott (“On the Count of Three”) continues to be one of the boldest actors of his generation. The risqué subject matter and first-class performances may appeal to buyers looking for a hidden gem.
“War Pony” (CAA/Protagonist)
Even though it was a hit at Cannes and won the Un Certain Regard prize for best first feature, Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s absorbing debut is still looking for a home. The movie revolves around the experiences of a Lakota boy and a young man on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, perhaps best known to cinephiles as the backdrop of Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider.” A gritty, surprising, and often quite funny coming-of-age story, the movie is the latest example of indigenous experiences funneled into contemporary film and TV (just in time for Season 2 of “Reservation Dogs”) that should make stars out of newcomers Jojo Bapteise Whiting and LaDainian Crazy Thunder. Buyers looking to tap into an underrepresented market should consider the potential of getting this story out there.
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