There were only a couple of all-night bidding wars at this year’s Toronto, but that didn’t mean buyers weren’t buying with confidence.

There’s now a confidence in the marketplace,” said Alex Walton, president of Exclusive Films International as September’s Toronto International Film Festival wound down.

Such confidence meant there were no heavily publicised bidding wars between trigger-happy distributors for attractive titles with rights available. Even the slow start made sense to most. After all, savvy acquisitions teams will take their time whenever they can. The financial crisis has weeded out the flashy big spenders and gone are the days when a buyer would put down a huge minimum guarantee (MG) or commit millions in p&a to support mediocre product. 

For example, domestic buyers adopted a wait-and-see approach to The Flowers Of War (formerly Heroes Of Nanking), Zhang Yimou’s drama set during the 1937 Nanking Massacre that stars Christian Bale. FilmNation screened 20 minutes of footage to buyers on the first Friday and select press were invited to witness the spectacle. But a buying frenzy and attendant headlines did not emerge. Acquisition executives want to see the finished product, all too aware more than half of the film is in Mandarin. It premieres in Beijing on December 16.

By the end of the festival, when the trickle of deals had turned into a torrent of mostly niche business, many of the films had been in play for more than a week. A congested first Saturday had forced teams to cram in hot picks such as Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, The Oranges, Friends With Kids, Rampart, Take This Waltz, 360, Hick and Midnight Madness hit You’re Next. Domestic buyers generally liked what they saw and were prepared to bide their time to ensure they could offer something that would do right by the film.

‘There’s now a confidence in the marketplace’

Alex Walton, Exclusive Films International

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions closed a US deal with Cinetic for Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends With Kids at the end of the festival. Lionsgate bought Adam Wingard’s home invasion thrill-ride You’re Next after the festival had closed, and a deal on Tanya Wexler’s Victorian-era romantic comedy Hysteria appears imminent.

But acquisitions teams cannot always afford to wait and those with decision-makers on the ground were nimble when required. The biggest deal of the festival was not Fox Searchlight’s swoop on US rights to Shame (a canny awards roster buy, even if many doubt its commercial prospects) but from CBS Films. Led by summer hire Scott Shooman from Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, CBS pledged $5.5m-$6m, and a considerable p&a spend, for Lasse Hallstrom’s Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, a popular title starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.

Similarly, financier Mickey Liddell paid around $4m for Voltage Pictures’ Killer Joe, which features a bold change of direction for Matthew McConaughey, and Liddell will look to shop the dark comedy to an appropriate distributor.

Focus on niche fare

It became clear available festival entries with broad playability were thin on the ground. The Descendants; 50/50; Jeff, Who Lives At Home; Killer Elite and Machine Gun Preacher (the last two deemed odd choices for the Toronto programme) arrived with US distribution in place and were off the table. But as sales agent Cassian Elwes suggested in a mid-festival Tweet, the prevalence of product with a narrower focus was a reflection more of the programmers’ taste and in no way an indication of the state of the market.

The abundance of smaller deals on a number of festival entries including Midnight Madness shocker The Incident — financed by France’s SND — and The Deep Blue Sea and The Oranges signifies the ongoing allure of more challenging product. VoD and digital platforms are playing an increasingly important role here and are regarded as a potentially lucrative avenue, with or without theatrical uplift.

Magnolia and IFC have established digital pipelines and while they will never say how much their films make on VoD, word is the most successful titles can gross millions of dollars. And just ahead of Toronto, The Weinstein Company poached Magnolia executives Tom Quinn and Jason Janego to run its new digital operation. The scratch team was in town scouting for titles.

“Consumers are the ones who decide and they are deciding to watch films differently,” says Kevin Iwashina of Preferred Content, which recently launched the digital distribution fund Preferred Ventures with founder Ed Ojdana and former Facebook executive Chris Kelly.

At the other end of the independent budget range, well-connected sales agents with access to capital have worked hard to educate producers and financiers about what budget levels will work and the importance of quality above and below the line. Energised producer-financiers such as the 1840 Fund, Megan Ellison, Liddell, Australia’s Omnilab Media and a seemingly resurgent Emmett/Furla are prepared to put ‘skin in the game’ for the right project.

‘Consumers are the ones who decide and they are deciding to watch films differently’

Kevin Iwashina, Preferred Content

The rise of p&a funds is also helping distributors. Open Road Films, the fledgling company comprising Tom Ortenberg and theatre chains AMC and Regal, reportedly paid an $8m MG and committed a $25m p&a spend to Omnilab Media’s Killer Elite starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro. It grossed $9.4m on its opening weekend in North America.

Jim Stern’s Endgame Entertainment is also understood to be putting together a fund to come on board third-party product and support its own productions.

Script-stage deals

New this year was the sheer number of discussions about films at script stage at the festival. The positive response to Bennett Miller’s Moneyball revived the director’s wrestling project Foxcatcher and Ellison’s Annapurna Productions has come on board to finance.

CAA and WME were talking up the $50m crime noir Broken City, an attractive proposition Allen Hughes is ready to shoot in November with Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg heading up the cast. The backer is Emmett/Furla, which recently unveiled a $250m fund in partnership with Stepan Martirosyan and Remington Chase’s Envision Entertainment.

Inferno Entertainment is handling pre-sales on Broken City and reported sustained interest from buyers.

Exclusive’s Walton enjoyed huge interest in Rush, the Formula 1 project that boasts a screenplay by Peter Morgan and is being directed by Ron Howard in his first non-studio foray in more than 25 years.

Howard’s involvement in the Exclusive Media Group-Cross Creek Pictures project has piqued buyer interest, and, like Broken City, demonstrates the kind of marquee project becoming increasingly prevalent in the independent space.

Post festival, international sales agents and buyers generally expressed great satisfaction with the level of accessibility and ease of operation since the festival’s move downtown.

It is food for thought for the AFM as the industry prepares to head over to November’s market situated in the expensive and unpopular environs of the Loews hotel in Santa Monica. IFTA, which runs the AFM, is contemplating a move to the L.A. LIVE downtown complex in Los Angeles by 2013. The upbeat vibe and better access to the concurrent AFI Fest in nearby Hollywood would appear to be the perfect complement to the energy that is coursing through the independent film business.

Toronto deomestic deal highlights

Title, Distributor (Territory sold)

  • Americano MPI Media Group (North America)
  • The Awakening Cohen Media Group (US)
  • Beloved IFC (North America)
  • The Day WWE Studios (US)
  • The Deep Blue Sea Music Box (North America)
  • Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel Samuel Goldwyn Films (North America)
  • Elena Zeitgeist Films (US)
  • Friends With Kids Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions (US)
  • God Bless America Magnet (World)
  • Goon Magnet (US)
  • Historias Film Movement (North America)
  • The Hunter Magnolia (US)
  • Killer Joe Liddell Entertainment (US)
  • The Lady Cohen Media Group (US)
  • Last Call At The Oasis ATO Pictures (US)
  • The Oranges ATO Pictures (North America)
  • This Is Not A Film Palisades Tartan (US and UK)
  • Trishna Sundance Selects (North America)
  • Salmon Fishing In The Yemen CBS Films (US)
  • Shame Fox Searchlight (US)
  • Wuthering Heights Oscilloscope (North America)
  • You’re Next Lionsgate (North America)
  • Your Sister’s Sister IFC (North and Latin America)
  • 4:44 Last Day On Earth IFC (North America)