Toronto Film Fest 2016: Event in Decline?

It’s not just that deal-making is moving at a slow pace at this year’s event.  Studios seem disinterested in picking up product, as buyers complain that there’s rarely been a weaker assortment of films.


On the one hand, there are more players than ever before — from Netflix to Amazon to the Chinese buyer who snatched up Colossal over the highly favored American indie, A24. That monster movie, starring Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, was to be one of the more prized offerings to debut at Toronto.

Sluggish Market

The market is sluggish because many of the glitziest movies playing here already came with distributors. As a result of competitors, studios are picking up movies like “Loving,” “Snowden” or “Nocturnal Animals” at the script stage, to avoid all-out bidding wars at a venue like Toronto.

“It’s supply and demand,” says Paul Davidson, executive vice president of film and TV for the indie label Orchard. “Companies don’t need as much good product, so they aren’t rushing to make big bids.” But quality control could help — many of the indies here are so small, it’s doubtful they compete with TV, which continues to thrive in terms of quality.

No Longer Oscar Platform

Toronto also felt off because its status as an Oscar leader is now in question. Once the launching pad for the Oscars race with big splashy premieres for awards favorites like “American Beauty,” Venice and Telluride have stolen the festival’s thunder.

Toronto now has to wait 72 hours (or more) before unveiling its best features: “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” “Arrival,” “Jackie” and “Manchester by the Sea,” all of which had debuted at other festivals. It makes for a slow-paced first few days. By the time Toronto feels like it’s revving up, people are already getting ready to leave.

Awkward Press Event for Birth of a Nation

Ironically, the most dramatic moment in this year’s opening weekend wasn’t on the big screen. It was during an awkward press conference on Sunday, where members of the press grilled “The Birth of a Nation” star Nate Parker about a rape trial and subsequent acquittal dating back to his college days.

Although the event wasn’t officially affiliated with the festival, it added to the uneasiness and uncertainty of the market. It was a reminder for buyer’s to beware — Fox Searchlight shelled out $17.5 million for the biopic about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, only to spend the last month fighting back press about its star’s past.

Jackie: Natalie Portman’s Oscar Card?

Fox Searchlight, did, however, give a moribund market a jolt of life late Monday night, grabbing rights to Jackie, one of the only hot projects off the table. The historical biopic is widely expected to earn Natalie Portman an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy, but had some buyers grousing that it was more of an art house play than a mainstream picture. That’s a familiar refrain at this year’s festival and may be part of the reason why buyers have kept their checkbooks closed.

There are still several notable projects that are drawing interest from buyers and are expected to sell before the end of the festival. Those include “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary about writer James Baldwin; “Their Finest,” a World War II comedy, which has multiple offers; and “The Bleeder,” a boxing drama with Liev Schreiber that some buyers think could get an awards push.

In years past, agencies have arrived with glossy packages that promise to unite a well-known star with a hot director. This year, most of the scripts and star attachments are leaving studios cold.

It’s unusual for there to be so many films still searching for a home after nearly a week of screenings, particularly given that many studios executives have begun fleeing Canada.

Last year was slow too. In fact, it took so long for projects to sell that Variety noted it was the festival of “let’s not make a deal.” But it was practically a whirlwind of activity compared to this edition, when the major sales consist of “Jackie,” “Colossal,” and little else. By a similar point at last year’s gathering, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Miss Sloane,” and “Eye in the Sky” were few of the films already lined up distribution.

Bad Deals in Past: Begin Again, Hardcore Henry

There are a number of reasons for the heightened caution. In the past, splashy pacts out of major film festivals haven’t worked out too well. “Begin Again” and “Hardcore Henry” are two films that scored multimillion deals out of Toronto only to wither at the box office.

Many major distributors came into Toronto with full slates. Netflix had moved heavily into producing its own movies, Amazon has several films that it has picked up at other festivals and markets, such as “Manchester by the Sea,” that it still needs to distribute.

Focus Features has a full slate of big movies yet to release, among them “A Monster Calls” and “Loving.”

“Probably we’ll leave without something new, but there’s still days left and we’ve still got the team running around screening things,” said Peter Kujawski, chair of Focus Features. “We’re always on that quest for something that we fall in love with.”

There are trends that are putting pressure on the business, particularly in terms of international distributors. A stronger dollar is limiting the ability of European buyers to pay the prices they were a few years ago, while Asian buyers seem more interested in taking meetings than making deals, sales agents say. Than there are the headaches associated with Great Britain’s vote last summer to leave the European Union — a decision that sent the value of the British pound plunging.

Source: Variety