Where Are the Sales? Why This Year’s Toronto Film Festival Market Slowed to a Crawl

·5 min read

Monday morning, film executives at the Toronto Film Festival woke up to a record-breaking deal for Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” which Focus Features acquired for $30 million, a seemingly healthy sign for the market and the indie-film world.

There was just one problem: “The Holdovers” wasn’t a splashy premiere at the Princess of Wales or Royal Alexandra that had buyers huddling in the lobby but a private screening at the Scotiabank multiplex shown to just a handful of individuals representing all the major studios and streamers on Sunday.

And so far, it’s the only sale on that scale since the festival began last Thursday.

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In fact, outside of Neon’s acquisition of the heist thriller “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” on Tuesday in a competitive situation, TIFF has had no major sales through its first week. In the lead-up to the festival, TheWrap reported that the festival was light on available acquisition titles, and those that were available were smaller films playing in the Midnight Madness or Discovery sections, some of which came to the festival with some form of international deals already in place.

As a result, this year’s TIFF was dominated by the more crowd-pleasing studio and streamer fare like “Glass Onion,” “The Fabelmans,” “The Woman King” and even the Midnight Madness premiere of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” that already had distribution deals in place. And many publicists, distributors, agents or industry pros murmured that though there hasn’t been a shortage of discussions around the acquisition titles, little could match the hype of those films or “The Holdovers.”

That’s not to say there was no buzz around the smaller acquisition titles. For at least a handful of movies, big deals could close over the next few days (or weeks). Among those are Paul Weitz’s “Moving On,” a comedy starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, “The Blackening,” a horror comedy satire directed by Tim Story and pushed by MRC Film, and “Sisu,” a Midnight Madness movie that’s an explosive mix of action and WWII tropes.

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Buyers have also been circling titles like “Baby Ruby,” “Aristotle and Dante” and “Brother,” among others, but one indie distribution rep predicted it could be a longer, more drawn-out closing process for many of these films. And many publicists, distributors and agents said that most conversations have not been advanced enough to the point that they expect imminent sales.

That may sound curious for anyone who saw screening rooms flooded with mostly maskless audiences and King Street crawling with both fans and industry pros. But several experts expected this year’s TIFF to still lead to a slower market, and they suspect deal announcements may still trickle out over the next couple of weeks.

So what gives? For one, the major streaming services did not show up, or at least with their checkbooks. (Some were at least in the mix for “The Holdovers” before it landed with Focus.) Rather, the expectation was that this year’s TIFF could reconvene traditional theatrical buyers, all of whom are eagerly, but still cautiously, stepping back into the marketplace.

And though the industry was eager to be back in-person at Toronto, that didn’t necessarily mean deals would be back in full force — and many are encouraged by the caution. “The pace of deals slowed during the virtual festivals, with people screening remotely at different times than their colleagues or other buyers and there being less pressure without an in-person element. It makes sense to me that there isn’t an immediate bounce-back in the pace of dealmaking,” Kent Sanderson, head of acquisitions at Bleecker Street, told TheWrap. “People have gotten used to a slower, possibly more thoughtful approach, and that’s likely a good thing.”

alexander payne paul giamatti The Holdovers
“The Holdovers” director Alexander Payne (left) and star Paul Giamatti (Getty Images)

There are other factors at play as well: Several of the acquisition titles were scheduled later in the TIFF schedule than usual. “Moving On” did not have its world premiere until Tuesday, the Brian Cox drama “Prisoner’s Daughter” debuted Wednesday, while “Dalíland” with Ben Kingsley closes the festival this Saturday — though each had a smattering of Press & Industry screenings earlier.

It also didn’t help that one of the buzzier titles of the festival, “The People’s Joker,” was pulled from the lineup at the last minute due to “rights issues” stemming from its satirical setting within the Batman universe. And you couldn’t find anyone at the festival who did not have at least some issues with ticketing: journalists waited for tickets to land in their inboxes and needed to be accepted within narrow windows, while studio marketing teams were forced to manually invite talent to each film.

More concerning could be the macro issues facing indie distributors and the current theatrical landscape (which extends to studio movies that have generated festival buzz but may not be able to draw mainstream audiences). That hasn’t stopped deals altogether: Sony Pictures Classics bought the Yogi Berra documentary “It Ain’t Over” following its Tribeca bow and IFC Films nabbing the Rebel Wilson drama “The Almond and the Seahorse” ahead of its premiere at next week’s Zurich Film Festival.

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