Toronto Film Festival: Where Were All the Big Sales?

“There are millions of dollars at stake so people are taking their time,” one insider tells TheWrap

Although agents and buyers were gearing up for what they called a healthy acquisitions market leading up to this year’s Toronto Film Festival, the annual event wrapped on Sunday with relatively few big sales — and many filmmakers still scrambling to find distribution for projects with A-list talent.

By midday Monday, hot sales titles like Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel’s “The Friend,” Hugh Jackman’s “Bad Education” and Daniel Radcliffe’s “Guns Akimbo” still hadn’t sold. But according to multiple insiders, that’s not because the quality of the product on offer.

After this year’s Sundance, where a handful titles were sold for eight-figure prices only to fizzle out at the indie box office, filmmakers and distributors are taking their time to make sure the deal is beneficial on both sides, one insider told TheWrap.

“The pacing of Toronto is different than Sundance,” another insider said. “There are millions of dollars at stake, so people are taking their time.” After all, ahead of the festival, many sales agents had anticipated sales, but not at the volume of Sundance.

Still, some indie distributors did take the plunge. Sony Pictures Classics acquired two films — Michael Winterbottom’s “Greed” and Dan Friedkin’s WWII drama “Lyrebird” with Guy Pearce — and also picked up rights to the still-to-shoot Michelle Pfeiffer-Lucas Hedges drama “French Exit.”

Bleecker Street acquired Peter Cattaneo’s “Military Wives” with Kristin Scott Thomas, while Bryce Dallas Howard’s fatherhood documentary “Dads” was bought by AppleTV+ — which many sales agents had anticipated to be a more active buyer at the festival ahead of its launch. And Fox Searchlight bought Armando Iannucci’s Dev Patel-led “The Personal History of David Copperfield” just ahead of the festival.

Then there was Amazon Studios, which spent upwards of $50 million on five films at Sundance only to see disappointing results at the box office for two of them so far (“Late Night,” which topped out at $15.5 million domestically in theaters after a $13 million Sundance purchase, and “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” which has earned $3.8 million so far after a $14 million deal). In Toronto, the company made smaller, less pricey acquisitions: Riz Ahmed’s “Sound of Metal” and the ’50s-set sci-fi thriller “The Vast of Night.”

Ahead of the festival, an Amazon spokesperson told TheWrap that the company doesn’t measure the success of its films through box office only, but also through the film’s life on Prime Video — where “Late Night” started streaming two weeks ago.

There haven’t been many bidding wars, and sales are taking longer — but according to one insider, that is not a reason to worry about the overall state of the marketplace. “It was as active as we anticipated, as far as completing sales on the ground. There were a few titles sold over the first week,” the individual said, but “it’s going to keep going.”

For many in the indie film world, Toronto and the other fall festivals have focused less on selling new product than in rolling out film titles ahead of the awards season. “In terms of sales, Toronto is always a slower marketplace, part of it is the production cycle,” the insider said, noting that many filmmakers shoot their productions timed to premiere at Sundance in January rather than September for the major fall festivals like Venice and Toronto. “There aren’t many titles available for Toronto, or they are not as readily available as they are for Sundance.”

The insider added, “This festival has become far more important for the launch of distribution titles.” This year, films using Toronto to help roll out their fall marketing campaigns included “Joker” (Warner Bros.), “Jojo Rabbit” (Fox Searchlight) and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (Sony). “Jojo Rabbit” even won the Audience Award on Sunday — in recent years, that particular award has been a prerequisite for an eventual Best Picture Academy Award nominee. Last year’s Audience Award winner, “Green Book,” even was crowned Best Picture, while other previous winners include “La La Land” and “12 Years a Slave.”

Beatrice Verhoeven

Beatrice Verhoeven

Senior Film Reporter


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