The flurry of pickups at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival points to burgeoning optimism in the independent sector. Jeremy Kay explores the festival’s key deals
If there were lingering doubts about the prospects of the independent arena, then Toronto 2010 went some way towards dispelling them. While nobody believes the effects of the financial collapse will vanish overnight ― indeed, some argue the worst is yet to come ― the strong flow of deals from the festival has offered plenty of encouragement.
On paper, Toronto always looked like a high-quality affair and the good news is that, by and large, the films lived up to the hype. Black Swan, The King’s Speech and 127 Hours all delivered, and they should play prominent roles in the awards season. The highly favourable response from critics and audiences to these and other titles paved the way for an optimistic trade in available product behind the scenes that could throw a few new names into the Oscar race.
After the traditionally slow start, IFC Films got the ball rolling on the first weekend, paying seven figures in a deal brokered with WME and UTA for North American rights to James Gunn’s comedy Super, which stars Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon. Two days later WME was in action again, striking a $3.2m deal with The Weinstein Company for US, UK, France, Australia, New Zealand and South African rights to Abe Sylvia’s road movie Dirty Girl.
As Toronto’s usual avalanche of world premieres began to generate serious buzz for previously unknown entries, buyers swirled excitedly around the Scotiabank screening venue close to the festival’s swanky new downtown headquarters at the $194.2m (C$200m) TIFF Bell Lightbox. Within days of the festival opening, acquisitions teams, leaner perhaps than in recent years but hungry for commercial content, were pursuing easily half a dozen titles.
By the Tuesday (September 14), Sony Pictures Classics announced it had acquired US rights from eOne International to Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies and the following day the domestic acquisitions scene exploded.
The Weinsteins made their second big play of the festival, beating at least five other bidders to take North American rights to Warp Films’ British coming-of-age comedy Submarine from Richard Ayoade following an all-night bargaining session with WME. The seven-figure price-tag and supplemental p&a commitment was accompanied by heavy interest in foreign rights, handled by Ben Roberts of Protagonist Pictures.
Later that morning it emerged that Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions had negotiated US rights with CAA to Robert Redford’s historical drama, The Conspirator, featuring notable performances from Robin Wright and James McAvoy. The Conspirator impressed those who saw it at a pre-festival screening in Los Angeles and CAA was confident the film could catch fire quickly, despite question marks over the length of time it had been available heading into the festival. CAA’s instincts were spot-on: several buyers went after Redford’s film in Toronto and the deal closed after the second public screening.
Wednesday’s rush of sales continued when Paradigm and Lightning Entertainment licensed the US and English-speaking territories for Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy starring Maria Bello and Michael Sheen. The story of a married couple on the verge of separation who learn their son carried out a college massacre and killed himself may not have seemed like the most obvious theatrical prospect, but Anchor Bay thought so and came in with a seven-figure offer that includes what one party close to negotiations called a “significant” p&a commitment.
Starz-backed Anchor Bay Entertainment is an ambitious enterprise. Best known for its breakout success with City Island earlier this year, it is emerging as a distributor with an eclectic and generous appetite and pursued films aggressively in Toronto. The company announced deals during the festival on two non-Toronto projects: Crystal Sky’s video-game adaptation Tekken and the upcoming thriller Carjacked with Maria Bello and Stephen Dorff.
Big Wednesday concluded with a flurry. Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions negotiated with CAA and Paradigm for North American rights to James Wan’s horror tale Insidious starring Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson. It was a seven-figure deal and p&a commitment for theatrical release on 800-1,000 screens. IFC Films is understood to have brokered a six-figure deal with Submarine for US rights to Werner Herzog’s 3D documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, while Magnolia’s genre arm Magnet acquired US rights from Finecut to Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil.
One week into the festival (September 16) Lionsgate concluded its second major deal, taking North American rights after negotiating with CAA for John Cameron Mitchell’s drama Rabbit Hole. Lionsgate will release later this year to capitalise on strong notices, particularly for what has been hailed as a return to form for lead Nicole Kidman. The Oscar winner produced through her Blossom Films label alongside Olympus Pictures and OddLot Entertainment.
“All the sales agents have done well here,” said Graham Taylor, who heads WME’s finance and distribution group and oversaw negotiations in Toronto on Super, Submarine and Dirty Girl. “And they will announce impending deals over the next 30 to 45 days, which shows a real health back in the market.”
IFC Films’ senior vice-president of acquisitions and productions, Arianna Bocco ― herself at the heart of deals for Super and Cave Of Forgotten Dreams as well as for an unauthorised Harvey Weinstein documentary ― said the quality of the films helped.
“This was an incredibly strong festival,” Bocco said. “The films were great overall and there was something for everyone… They did a fantastic job programming it.
“The market is changing and probably there are fewer movies getting made and there’s less financing of riskier films. We are seeing the after-effect of that and these films are rising up to be the cream of the crop.”
IFC itself is undergoing a transformation and showed it was prepared to step up on bigger buys for theatrical prospects like Super. The average number of annual theatrical releases will stay in the 24-28 range but the company will include roughly four bigger titles in the mix, as well as several documentaries.
There were a handful of major scores on the international front, too.
Traditionally, the big deals tend to involve domestic buys on festival films, but with high overseas demand for locomotives for 2011 and beyond, there were pre-sales on quality commercial fare.
IM Global reported an extraordinary level of activity on two upcoming titles: the $45m action film Dredd starring Karl Urban and Barry Levinson’s zombie film, The Bay. “We took a little bit of a punt,” IM Global head Stuart Ford said. “But we have two very strong movies going into production and we thought it was too big an opportunity to pass up… Now that the festival has moved downtown you have a tight-knit sales environment with all the foreign buyers here. We intend to treat Toronto as a market as long as we have the product to support that.”
Meanwhile, Inferno Entertainment introduced buyers to the completed Australian action film Tomorrow When The War Began and was quietly selling up a storm on the back of the film’s sensational $7m haul from its first week in Australian cinemas.
Affinity International head Brian O’Shea was fielding multiple offers for the few remaining territories on Rabbit Hole, while Hyde Park International commenced sales on Toronto entry Peep World and Myriad Pictures head Kirk D’Amico reported a strong response to the world premiere of Good Neighbours.
“It really felt like a transitional year,” D’Amico said. “We were spending a lot of time in cabs going from King Street to Yorkville, but it feels like it’s inevitable that it will all take place downtown soon.”
Lara Thompson, senior vice-president of worldwide acquisitions at eOne, agreed. “Overall it’s been a great festival with an exceptional line-up of films with strong attendance,” she said. “In terms of the Lightbox, it’s an excellent venue and will serve as a great hub for TIFF moving forward.”
Select Toronto 2010 deals
■ 13 ASSASSINS Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet acquired US rights from HanWay Films.
■ BEAUTIFUL BOY Anchor Bay negotiated a seven-figure deal with Paradigm for English-speaking rights.
■ BEGINNERS Focus Features acquired worldwide rights excluding Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and Benelux.
■ CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS IFC negotiated a six-figure deal with Submarine for US rights.
■ THE CONSPIRATOR Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions negotiated with CAA for US rights.
■ DIRTY GIRL TWC did a $3.2m deal with WME for US, UK, France, Australia, New Zealand and South African rights.
■ EVERYTHING MUST GO Lionsgate
and Roadside Attractions negotiated with ICM and CAA for US rights.
■ THE FIRST GRADER National Geographic Entertainment took US theatrical rights from producer Anant Singh.
■ A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE Anchor Bay negotiated with Celluloid Nightmares for English-speaking rights.
■ I SAW THE DEVIL Magnet negotiated a deal with Finecut for North America.
■ INCENDIES SPC negotiated with eOne International for US rights.
■ INSIDIOUS SPWA negotiated a seven-figure deal with CAA and Paradigm for North American rights.
■ MEEK’S CUTOFF Oscilloscope negotiated a deal with Cinetic for North American rights.
■ PASSION PLAY Image Entertainment negotiated with ICM for US rights.
■ PEEP WORLD IFC negotiated with CAA for US rights.
■ RABBIT HOLE Lionsgate negotiated with CAA for North American rights.
■ RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE Oscilloscope acquired all North American rights.
■ Sarah’s Key TWC closed a US deal with Kinology just before the festival.
■ SUBMARINE TWC negotiated a seven-figure deal with WME for North America.
■ SUPER IFC negotiated a seven-figure deal with WME and UTA for US rights.