Buyers at Toronto were unwilling to bet big on expensive, star-driven films, preferring the low-risk gamble of smaller foreign-language films and smaller distribution costs.
As the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) came to a close last weekend, only one film had secured a substantial US deal and that was Tom Ford’s A Single Man, which arrived from Venice on a wave of critical acclaim - including an award for the film’s star, Colin Firth.
“Long gone are the days of bidding wars and buying frenzies. The deal for A Single Man, which closed after all-night negotiations following the Toronto screening and party, was almost a novelty”
The Weinstein Company put down less than $2m for the North America rights to the film, onthe condition it would be released in time for awards contention. Firth will almost certainly be an Oscar nominee for his superb performance as a gay professor in Los Angeles, 1961, who determinesone day to end his life.
Other buyers I spoke to called it “small” - a term common on the acquisitions circuit meaning its commercial prospects are limited. Or rather it does not have the potential to break out like Juno or Slumdog Millionaire.
But A Single Man is by its very nature small and its subject matter means it is unlikely ever to break into the mainstream. It is about love, regret and death, features a gay love affair at its heart and is the work of a first-time director (even if he is a fashion icon).
But it’s a strong film and distributors responded to its value as an adult drama which will appeal to specialised audiences wherever it is released.A Single Man echoes the acquisition at Tiff two years ago by Overture Films of The Visitor, which led to an Oscar nomination for leading man Richard Jenkins and grossed $9.4m in the domestic market.
In both cases, the films were not top of distributors’ hot lists. This year, all eyes were on sex thriller Chloe or whimsical fantasy Ondine. As we went to press, they had not sold.In a cost-conscious distribution environment, many domestic and international buyers were shyof betting big on costly, star-driven films which need the requisite P&A spend to release them.
Some were managing their risk and buying smaller, cheaper, acclaimed films which, while dependent on good reviews, have the chance to take a step or two outof the arthouse ghetto and score some bookings in mainstream cinemas. They have been burned too many times on mid-size English-language films.So some of the bigger titles at Toronto were ironically “small” foreign-language films.
Celluloid Dreams was cleaning up on its Venice Golden Lion winner Lebanon, The Works International generated deals on its Venice breakout hit I Am Love (Io Sono Amore) starring Tilda Swinton, and The Coproduction Office benefited from the warm critical reception to pilgrimage drama Lourdes, closing a deal in the US to Palisades as well as many other territories.
Long gone are the days of bidding wars and buying frenzies. The deal for A Single Man, which closed after all-night negotiations following the Toronto screening and party, was almost a novelty, reminiscent of Tiff multi-million dollar bidding wars for The Apostle or Thank You For Smoking in the past.Editing the Screen Tiff dailies, I realised that in the absence of deal-making, reviews became news.
The question on everyone’s lips was not “Who bought Chloe?” but “How is Chloe?” or “Will the critics like it?”. Buyers are less keen to make snap decisions, but need back-up from reviews or buyers in other territories. Some even discuss films’ prospects with rival buyers in their own territories.
Of course deals will close on many Toronto titles as the weeks go by, but prices will be conservative and many sales agents will be left with a numberof available territories on their slates.So at a time when apparently nobody knows anything, the only film to sell out straight away after Venice and Tiff was a “small” gay movie. Ford financed the movie himself and it is now in profit well before any distribution begins.
Fortunately with a robust post-Basterds Harvey Weinstein in charge, A Single Man has a chance to gather some serious Oscar momentum and mop up the accompanying box-office business. And that can only help independent distributors everywhere.