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For most films, it's no big deal

The festival has produced a line of strong films in recent years. But buyers this year proceed cautiously.

September 21, 2009|John Horn

It's the film festival that recently brought us "The Wrestler," "The Hurt Locker" and "The Visitor." But this year's Toronto International Film Festival delivered a departure: indifference.

Along with the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto stands out as a must-visit destination for movie distributors looking to buy new, highbrow works. Yet as successful as the festival has been in premiering any number of art-house breakouts in recent years, the shopper silence at the just-concluded Canadian gathering was deafening.

Scores of movies arrived in Toronto without domestic theatrical distribution, and almost all of them left the festival in the same exact condition. A handful of new films found international distribution, but the highest-profile domestic Toronto deal to yet close -- the Weinstein Co.'s acquisition of "A Single Man" for about $2.7 million -- was for a little more than half what Fox Searchlight paid for "The Wrestler" a year ago. The few other sales were much smaller.

"The profit model has changed," says Howard Cohen, whose Roadside Attractions pursued buying "A Single Man" but couldn't justify spending more than $1 million on the Colin Firth drama directed by fashion designer Tom Ford. "You can buy a movie for a reasonable price, and even if it works you can still lose money."

That's because movie marketing costs continue to climb, theaters are quicker than ever to kick out underperforming releases and cash-strapped consumers aren't buying as many DVDs. At the same time, audiences have steered clear of the sometimes difficult, intellectually challenging dramas that festival programmers tend to present.

Most of the sales that have been announced at Toronto, which closed Saturday night, are smaller deals for movies that may end up receiving limited theatrical releases. IFC Films acquired the Viking adventure story "Valhalla Rising," and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group was wrapping up a deal for Woody Harrelson's delusional superhero story "Defendor."

A number of prominent, star-driven Toronto titles did not immediately land distribution deals, including Natalie Portman's "Love & Other Impossible Pursuits," Michael Caine's "Harry Brown," Bill Murray's "Get Low" and Demi Moore's "The Joneses." The makers of Nicolas Cage's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" are hoping that a meaningful distribution offer will come their way, but for now, the movie will be released by a subsidiary of its financiers, First Look Pictures.

If this year's festival didn't yield many impressive sales, Toronto still may play a prominent role in the future of some of its more popular titles. Among top festival prizes -- Sundance's Grand Jury Prize, Cannes' Palme d'Or -- none is a better predictor of critical and commercial achievement than Toronto's audience award. Past dramatic winners include "Slumdog Millionaire," "American Beauty," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Amelie." On Saturday, the Toronto audience award went to "Precious," a dramatic feature about an abused teen from director Lee Daniels. For the first time, the festival also gave out people's choice prizes for the documentary and the Midnight Madness categories. "The Topp Twins," about a New Zealand lesbian country-western duo, won for documentary, and the Australian teen horror "The Loved Ones" took home the Midnight Madness award.

Cautious buyer behavior was hardly unique to Toronto. "The Last Station," a look at the final days and marriage of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), was among the most popular titles shown at Labor Day weekend's Telluride Film Festival. But even with the Oscar-winning Mirren in a lead role, "The Last Station" has not yet found a theatrical benefactor. Any number of Cannes Film Festival works suffered the same fate.

Andrew Herwitz, whose Film Sales Co. took six new movies to Toronto in hopes of landing a distribution deal, has yet to place one of his films in a new home.

"It's not the case that there's not interest. It's that things are moving much more slowly," says Herwitz, whose Toronto slate included the dramas "Cole," "Cooking With Stella" and "My Dog Tulip" and the documentary "Stolen." Herwitz says that rather than swoop in and buy a movie on the spot, studios, their specialty film divisions and independent distributors are now showing prospective purchases to all of their department heads.

"It's much easier when the film sells at the first screening," Herwitz says. "But when everybody at the company looks at it, the whole company is invested in the film. There's a groundswell back home."


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