Letter from Toronto: Transition Grips the Film Business

The sense of transition is palpable at this year's festival, where existential business worries overshadow the films

The sense of transition in the film industry is palpable at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, where they are still doling out one press pass per online news organization as if they’ve not yet noticed that online is where everyone has landed. Hu-llo.

But it’s not only the best journalists who’ve fled traditional formats. Everywhere you look at the festival are experienced film executives at loose ends – here’s ex-Apparition’s Bob Berney, there’s  ex-Universal’s David Linde — looking to close a financing deal, thinking about starting a company, eager to find the right perch in a world where all the old rules are broken and ready to be remade.

That’s the business of film today. 

 

At the post-premiere party for Focus Features’ “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” I had multiple conversations about the business … and very few about the film.

(The film is a nice enough, if somewhat conventional, coming-of-age story — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “The Breakfast Club” — starring 17-year-old Keir Gilchrist and notable mainly for the scenes with Zach Galifianakis, ever off-kilter and hilarious.)

I heard the deep musings of a lawyer who is figuring out how to shift the business model for his clients in television. He, like others, finds film too challenging these days. But he is thinking about how actors might own their own intellectual property instead of doing work for hire by TV studios and networks.

Another veteran studio executive currently without portfolio is about to close some financing where he’ll be able to make two to four movies a year. I hear of a lot of deals like that; some of them close, others dangle endlessly without ever closing.

Then my phone rings and it’s another promising digital entrepreneur who has just resigned from his entertainment company – he doesn’t want to talk about it yet. Another false start for someone talented and on the hunt for the way forward.

There is talk about Miramax, and who will get that CEO job. Who wants the CEO job of a caretaker library? The new entity, to be owned by Ron Tutor and Tom Barrack, will not be making new movies, or barely. Many have been interviewed for that position. A lot of qualified executives do not want it for that reason.

There is talk about Graham King’s new venture, which has all the markings of a new independent studio but has not yet been announced. Whither Bob Berney? (Watch that space, a birdie tells me.)

There is no talk about MGM. Only sadness. Five years ago all of those executives were locked into multiyear contracts at major studios or were running independent film companies.

Now, everyone is seeking to start their own companies, scrape together the financing, look for the technological edge that will make the puzzle pieces come together and add up as a win. This preoccupation would explain the anemic pace of acquisitions at Toronto, which has become the new normal for independent film.

IFC picked up a Rainn Wilson comedy, “Super,” but the money was not disclosed — and if it really was seven figures, we’ll say Mazel Tov.

 

The buzz was strong around two sad movies involving the emotional drama of couplehood: David Schwimmer’s new film, "Trust,” stars Catherine Keener and Clive Owen as parents dealing with a sexual predator and their daughter.

“Rabbit Hole,” stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as parents navigating the loss of a child. Both are for sale. Sony Pictures Classics bought the Canadian film "Incendies," the Weinstein company bought "Dirty Girl."

Of course there is talk of the Oscars. Of course there is rising interest in what will be a contender as the news rolls out of Telluride, Venice and Toronto. Watch out for “The Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech,” so far, for sure.

But the existential underpinnings of the movie business seem to be making everyone more uncertain, and somehow less harshly hostile in what is usually a competitive environment.

As the lawyer said while people piled out of Brassai with their Google goodie bags and Marc Jacobs whatsahoosits, “I’m just trying to figure it out.”