post-TIFF 2013: too big for indies and foreign films to cut through?

László Kriston reflects on a festival growing like a vast cloud to obscure the sun of true art, and the deals which rain down from heaven on the just and the unjust alike.
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László Kriston reflects on a festival growing like a vast cloud to obscure the sun of true art, and the deals which rain down from heaven on the just and the unjust alike.

A line up of 288 features and simultaenous, conflicting red carpet events each evening for prestige movies eyeing Oscars. That’s Toronto. This year, TIFF reached a mental or psychological barrier where it became too big to grasp for even the most ardent, hard core movie fans, reviewers and buyers.

Yet the deal-making frenzy did not flare up right away. During the first, traditionally busy, weekend the trade press was still writing about waiting for the deals avalance.

Around 2006, I had set my eyes on TIFF because I noticed that they get roughly 80 noteworthy world (or international) premieres, while Venice offers only half of that, as far as my taste is concerned. Since I attended Toronto in 2008 for the first time, the event grew even larger—perhaps too large for its own good.

The first warning sign this year that they got carried away in their selection came when in the weeks leading up to the fest, with portions of the line up announced, I lost count and never managed to have easy memory recall about the cast and storyline behind most of the titles. Welcome to TIFF Memory Overload.

Soon enough, other industry insiders noticed. Variety wrote about TIFF’s “bragging rights,” explaining that they literally take any decent (U.S.) films with name actors (and with Oscar hopes) just so that the New York Film Festival, London, the AFI Fest or the next edition of Sundance won’t have it as a premiere.

A week after TIFF, as I was sitting in the festival car from the Bilbao Airport to the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain’s Basque Country, heading to my next fest gig, a potentate from Fortissimo Films remarked to me that it was perhaps the first year when a number of sales agents clearly felt they’re having a real hard time getting exposure for their titles (even though Fortissimo managed quite well in that regard).

But New Zealand’s Giselle, for instance, failed to garner (print) reviews in the trade press. The editors probably felt they had dozens of other indie offerings to cram into their finite number of pages. There are many other casualties that fall by the wayside. Two weeks after TIFF, The Hollywood Reporter joined the fray running an article called “Toronto’s New Tussle: Too Many Buzzy Movies,” lamenting that the Argo [and American Beauty] strategy now has too many eager producers wanting to replicate that success at TIFF.

Could TIFF’s enormous size and must-attend status turn against the event, scaring away indie producers who may feel that their only shot to get noticed is unintentionally sabotaged by the embarrasment-of-riches selection policy, because their gem falls through the cracks?

The fattest deals

Some get lucky, still.

As an indication of what’s going to be released widely around the world, the first on-site, seven-figure deals for U.S. release were:
-Tom Harrdy-starrer Locke (which wasn’t even in TIFF’s program, it screened only in Venice), scored a US$1.25 million U.S. distribution deal with A24 Films which is owned by Guggenheim Partners;
-For Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, Focus Features paid US$7 million, securing worldwide rights;
Can A Song Save Your Life? with Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo was picked up by Harvey Weinstein for America with a US$7 million acquisiton price and US$20 million in guaranteed P&A spend. It rolls out theatrically through Roadshow in Australia. TWC also picked up The Railway Man for US$2 million (according to, Tracks and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her for 2014 release;
-John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, featuring fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, scored a US$3 million pick up by Millennium Entertainment.

Since Mud, Way Way Back and the US$3.5 million pick up at last year’s TIFF, Place Beyond the Pines each earned US$20 million at the U.S. box office, there was a renewed interest among the buyers to snap up the most promising, still available specialty titles. The arena saw the emergence of new players, including A24, Exclusive Releasing and Radius.

Deals round up

Movies that have been picked up at TIFF for Australian release include Matteo Lovadina’s award-winning film from Venice, Ruin (AU: Madman), David Gordon Green’s Joe with Nic Cage (AU: Madman), Israel Horovitz’s upcoming feature debut My Old Lady, starring Maggie Smtih, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas (NZ &AU: Hopscotch/eOne), Jia Zhang-Ke’s A Touch of Sin (NZ & AU: Curious), Paul Schrader’s Venice-premiered The Canyons (AU: Mediafuse).

-Further North American acquisitions include: A Touch of Sin, All Is By My Side, the intriguing Bright Days Ahead with Fanny Ardant (seen in blue jeans for the first time), the documentaries Burt’s Bu and Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, Le Démantèlement, McCanick, Oculus, Proxy, The F Word, Eli Roth’s horror flick The Green Inferno, The Major, The Station, Ti West’s The Sacrament, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson and Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures.

By the time the fest ended, 32 deals had been clinched “to territories globally,” per the festival’s industry office.
-4,743 industry professionals attended TIFF (10 % more than last year), representing 2,588 companies in 80 countries.
-As the local press noted, in a good year the sales agents normally ramp up US$30 million in deals.
-The festival itself generates CA$189 million in economic activity for the region.

Tomorrow’s movies

A handful of acclaimed and upcoming directors and actors from down under had their upcoming projects announced during TIFF, a long-held ploy to gain trade press exposure.

-Philip Noyce is preparing The Giver for Walden Media and The Weinstein Company based on Lois Lowry’s 1994 novel set in the future, a world whose habitants managed to get rid of poverty and diseases. The film will be headlined by Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. Alexander Skarsgard, Brenton Thwaites, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift round out the cast.

-Cate Blanchett signed up for David Mamet’s Blackbird which will shoot in January.

– Ryan Kwanten, newly moustached (in vintage 1970s style), dropped in to make a red carpet appearance in Toronto before he was whisked off to South Africa for the location shoot of Claudio Fah’s Northmen – A Viking Saga which began filming during the festival on September 9. Its sales agent, The Salt Company already licensed the film to Australia and New Zealand.

-The See Saw principals, Emile Sherman and Iain Canning will have their hands full with the Sherlock Holmes project starring Sir Ian McKellen and a new take on James Dean which chronicles his friendship with Life and Magnum photographer Dennis Stock. Budgeted around US$10 to US$15 million, Life will star Robert Pattinson as Stock and Dane DeHaan as Dean. Photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn is set to direct, filming will commence in February 2014 in Canada. FilmNation began selling the project in Toronto.
-Emanuel Michael, head of New York-based Unison Films, the company behind TIFF entry The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, is in post-production with a New Zealand-set vampire comedy directed by Taika Waititi (Boy). They plan to take it to Sundance. Taika’s next script, Jojo Rabbit is going to be shot in Germany in March 2014 as a co-production with Studio Babelsberg.

-The Sydney-set surfer thriller Drown by Dean Francis found a worldwide sales agent in High Point Films & TV. Based on Stephen Davis’s stage play, which deals with the topic of homophobic bullying, the film has a delivery date set for early 2014.

-EMAFilms, RKSS Collective and T&A Films are going ahead with Turbo Kid, a New Zealand-Canada co-production by writer-director Jason Eisener. It will shoot in February 2014 with funds provided by Telefilm Canada and the New Zealand Film Comission.

-The Producers Lab hosted for the first time producers from New Zealand (filmwork’s Fiona Copland and Stella Film’s Robin Laing) and Australia (Melodrama Pictures’ Melanie Coombs and Blue Tongue’s Matthew Dabner, a co-writer of The Square with Joel Edgerton). Copland was looking for partners on the musical comedy, Doubtful Sound.

The market was abuzz with ICM’s offering, a new Nina Simone biopic (only a trailer was screened to select buyers), while sales veteran Patrick Wachsberger brought in gushing teen girls for the buyers-only-screening of the Justin Bieber doc, Believe to create bu, an acoustic and audible one at that.

László Kriston
About the Author
László is a film critic and journalist, originally from Budapest, who is very active on the international festival scene.