When Marco Mueller programmed The Hurt Locker and The Wrestler on the last two days of this year's Venice film festival, he might have anticipated a flurry of attention from US buyers. These new films from Kathryn Bigelow and Darren Aronofsky had been pre-sold around the world but neither had a domestic deal in place.
But for most domestic buyers, the Venice world premieres served just one purpose, that of heightening anticipation for the Toronto screenings of the films a few days later.
The Wrestler premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) took place at the Elgin Theatre in downtown Toronto on September 7, two days after the Venice screening.
The theatre was jam-packed, with every domestic buyer in the business waiting patiently in their seats or schmoozing around the aisles. Peter Rice, Daniel Battsek and John Lesher and their (not inconsiderable) teams occupied entire rows of the auditorium. The scene was more reminiscent of the Eccles Theatre at Sundance than a big public screening at Toronto.
By the time TIFF's co-director Cameron Bailey had taken to the stage to introduce Darren Aronofsky, and Aronofsky had name-checked every wrestler and actor in the house before gushingly inviting Mickey Rourke to the microphone, the film was 45 minutes late.
Twelve hours later, Aronofsky and Wild Bunch had their distributor in Fox Searchlight, a $4m US-only deal in the bag and a US release date guaranteed before the end of the year. Mickey Rourke was looking like a lock for a best actor Oscar nomination; Lionsgate was smarting, however, having been passed over for a deal they thought they had already closed.
The Hurt Locker screening was a similar bunfight two days later, resulting in a deal with Summit Entertainment for less than seven figures which was still hotly contested.
TIFF has a habit of programming public screenings of films without domestic distribution before their press and industry screenings, meaning that buyers are compelled to watch the film surrounded by hundreds of Toronto locals - well-known as the most enthusiastic of any festival audience.
Marco Mueller would argue that they did have a prior screening - in Venice - but the reality is that fewer domestic buyers make the trip to the Lido these days than even five years ago.
Toronto is their primary deal-making platform and what is the point in getting a jump on other buyers by attending Venice when sales representatives will not even engage in a sales conversation until TIFF'
'A lacklustre affair'
Even with those two deals, this year's Toronto was a lacklustre affair in terms of high-profile sales.
The US independent distribution arena is in a rotten state and, as Sundance in January indicated, buyers are happy not to engage in furious bidding wars for a film that might be a challenge to distribute.
As of Tuesday this week, only a couple of TIFF titles were closed in addition to The Wrestler and The Hurt Locker: Sony Classics bought North America and Australia on Jim Stern and Adam Del Deo's documentary Every Little Step and IFC Films bought two from TrustNordisk - Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments and Kristian Levring's Fear Me Not. Many films will close in the next few weeks or months. It is tough in the independent sphere and US buyers are not in any hurry to overpay for movies.
In fact, there is no better example of slow dealmaking than the final closure of a domestic deal on Steven Soderbergh's Che films during Toronto. At Berlin this year, Wild Bunch was showing footage of the two two-hour films, Part One: The Argentine and Part Two: Guerrilla, and the numbers they were asking were enormous. Germany alone was $6m, according to Screen reports at the time.
But after the Cannes world premiere of the uncompromising Spanish-language films, the price dropped significantly. The Weinstein Company and long-time Soderbergh ally Magnolia Pictures were among those that had flirted with the films, but Wild Bunch finally closed the deal on September 9 with IFC Films.
For IFC, which buys up to 100 films a year for its In Theatre simultaneous theatrical and video-on-demand and Festival Direct straight-to-VoD programmes, the Che acquisition is a coup.
The company can count on some positive critical response and a great deal of publicity when it opens the film theatrically as a four-hour picture with intermission in Los Angeles and New York for an Academy-qualifying run in December. In January, the film will open wider in cinemas and at the same time on the In Theatre VoD platform.
'We had always stayed in touch with Wild Bunch about the film,' explains IFC's vice-president of acquisitions and co-production Arianna Bocco. 'When you have something that is a challenge, it doesn't always end up being about the money but who can get it out the widest in the most economical way possible. Everyone at IFC is committed to making it work.'
Of course, key to the IFC deal is the company's VoD capability through parent company Cablevision. IFC has proved that the simultaneous VoD window for its films can reach audiences under-served by arthouse theatres and produce a faster return than if a film were to go through its traditional distribution cycle.
While no new domestic buyers officially came out at Toronto, there were plenty of behind-the-scenes rumblings about new players, executive movements and shifting paradigms.
Bob Berney was at the festival quietly laying the groundwork for his new distribution outfit and was rumoured already to be making bids on Toronto movies.
Mark Urman is about to step into his new job running Senator Entertainment (on October 1) and Amy Israel's appointment as executive vice-president of production at New Regency implies that prestige film-making is not on the way out within the studio system.
Meanwhile a new breed of formerly video-driven US outfits are moving into the all-media buying space and including theatrical commitments in their deals, namely Anchor Bay, Liberation, Peace Arch and Screen Media Ventures.
What is more, last year's upstarts Overture Films and Summit Entertainment were looking decidedly stronger a year on from TIFF 2007 - Overture in the light of its arthouse success with The Visitor, and Summit three months before the release of what is expected to be a major mainstream hit in Twilight.
Toronto was, of course, swarming with buyers from outside the US, many seeing up to five films a day and still missing out on films because of the punishing volume of new titles at the festival.
Screen published print dailies at TIFF for the fifth consecutive year and deals news was coming in thick and fast.
Some buyers had come from Venice, others had missed Venice altogether. One leading European distributor, who had pre-bought the rights to The Wrestler, had to miss the Venice screening to get to Toronto in time. He, like all the other buyers in Toronto, saw the film for the first time at the Elgin on Sunday night.
'A fully fledged market''
Is Toronto a fully fledged market' It seems increasingly to be one, despite the lack of official recognition from TIFF. Sellers certainly chose to announce new projects available for pre-sales.
HanWay unveiled its soon-to-shoot Charles Darwin project Creation, directed by Jon Amiel and starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly; Paramount Vantage announced that it had picked up international on Neil Jordan's mermaid fantasy Ondine starring Colin Farrell; Kimmel International took on Marilyn Agrelo's upcoming An Invisible Sign Of My Own, with Jessica Alba; ContentFilm International announced it had picked up Mike Judge's comedy Extract, with Jason Bateman and Mila Kunis; and Millennium Films held a press conference with Edward Norton to announce it would finance and sell Leaves In The Grass, which will star Norton as twins under Tim Blake Nelson's direction.
Stewart Till's company Stadium finally announced it would be acquiring Icon's international operations midway through the festival, a move which gave him the thriving UK and Australian distribution companies as a basis for his long-cherished international distribution network.
And there were a healthy number of sales to international buyers, although many more deals will be closed during AFM in November.
Still awaiting domestic deals at time of going to press were high-profile pictures such as Richard Linklater's Me And Orson Welles, Richard Eyre's The Other Man and Stephen Belber's Management.
Among the films with most buzz were Toa Fraser's Dean Spanley and Stephan Elliott's Easy Virtue, period pieces which were viewed as pleasant surprises by many buyers. Other high-profile titles still waiting for US deals are The Burning Plain, Fifty Dead Men Walking, Adam Resurrected, Disgrace, Is There Anybody There' and The Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond.
If The Wrestler was the most sought after acquisition title, Slumdog Millionaire was unquestionably the most talked about film with distribution in place.
Danny Boyle's crowd-pleaser about a young man from the streets competing on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' won the prestigious Cadillac People's Choice Award at the festival, often considered one of the best predictors of a major awards and box-office player. Past winners have included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Whale Rider, Hotel Rwanda and Eastern Promises.
Half in Hindi, half in English, Slumdog will also be a Fox Searchlight release this November in the US, although this film too was a victim of the current distribution shakeout, having originally been acquired by Warner Independent Pictures (WiP) before it was closed down. Searchlight, the long-time home of Boyle's films in the US, stepped in just before the festival to take over the domestic release.
For ex-WiP staff, the film's success at Telluride and Toronto was a poignant indicator of what could have been.