Toronto Preview: Oscar Contender Overload, But Drought of Hot Sales Titles

Will Harvey Weinstein flex his buying muscles? Will The Orchard continue its Sundance momentum?

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, doubling as a launchpad for legit Oscar hopefuls and would-be contenders as well as an acquisitions market for finished films and those in the all-too-delicate packaging stage.

After changing its screening policy regarding rival fall festivals such as Venice and Telluride, TIFF is offering an embarrassment of awards-season riches with films such as “The Martian,” “Freeheld,” “Stonewall,” “Trumbo” “Truth” and “Our Brand Is Crisis,” as well as recent festival favorites including “Black Mass,” “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl,” “Suffragette,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Brooklyn,” “Sicario” and foreign language contender “Son of Saul.”

However, there’s no single acquisition title that has buyers drooling, with many of the hottest films selling prior to the festival.

That may prove to be a blessing in disguise considering the disappointing fates of recent must-have Toronto titles such as Chris Rock‘s “Top Five” (which Paramount bought last year for $12.5 million), Jason Bateman‘s “Bad Words” (which Focus picked up for $7 million in 2013) and the Mark RuffaloKeira Knightley music drama “Can a Song Save Your Life,” which the Weinstein Company acquired for $7 million before releasing last year as “Begin Again.”

In terms of the Toronto marketplace, veteran sales agents expect Netflix and Amazon to be power players alongside emerging distributors A24, Bleecker Street, Broad Green and STX, all of whom have been establishing strong track records as buyers.

Broad Green in particular is considered a buyer to watch after the opening weekend success of the Robert Redford movie “A Walk in the Woods” over the Labor Day frame. The company also acquired the Andrew GarfieldMichael Shannon thriller “99 Homes” out of Toronto last year, though the film won’t open until after this year’s festival.

Meanwhile, sellers are also eyeballing The Orchard, which made a statement at Sundance in buying Patrick Brice‘s “The Overnight” and Joe Swanberg‘s “Digging for Fire,” as well as the acclaimed documentaries “Cartel Land” and “Finders Keepers.”

Howard Cohen‘s Roadside Attractions and Bill Lee’s Alchemy are also expected to be active, while sellers should also keep an eye on Luc Besson‘s EuropaCorp, which acquired Samuel L. Jackson‘s action-thriller “Big Game” out of TIFF’s midnight section last year. The film was largely a VOD play, though EuropaCorp is looking to fill the RED distribution pipeline it shared with Relativity, whose bankruptcy does not affect RED.

Amazon should be out in full force with Bob Berney, Ted Hope and recent hire Scott Foundas leading the charge, but don’t expect its rival Netflix to back down without a fight. The streaming giant has made its biggest buys outside of festivals, such as Brad Pitt‘s “War Machine” and Angelina Jolie‘s adaptation of Cambodian author Loung Ung’s memoir “First They Killed My Father,” but it could swoop in to fill the acquisitions gap left by Relativity and TWC’s specialty label Radius, which recently lost its chief architects Tom Quinn and Jason Janego.

Radius-TWC was one of the companies pushing the day-and-date releasing strategy, which has come under question lately by longtime industry observers.

“The day-and-date strategy is waning,” one veteran sales agent told TheWrap. “It’s overcrowded and you have to market those movies more because you can’t just throw movies on that platform. For the day-and-date model to continue, the movies will need to be more like ‘Snowpiercer’ — they have to be bigger and make more noise to support a bigger spend,” the agent said, referencing Radius’ 2014 hit starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton

“Netflix has the capital to do it, but is that what they’re going to do for the next 10 years as windows continue to change and “day-and-date” becomes more malleable?” the agent added.

Another top sales agent echoed the sentiment that day-and-date has had a spotty track record of late, noting that it’s typically geared toward older audiences. “Amazon differs from Netflix in that Amazon will allow a minimum 30-day theatrical window. Netflix typically goes day-and-date, although they are allowing qualifying runs and theatrical releases as well on a case-by-base basis. One significant difference between the two is that Netflix looks to acquire worldwide rights and Amazon can acquire U.S. rights alone, allowing for greater flexibility on the deal and release strategy. A24 and DirecTV deals are more specific and the films are released day-and-date.”

Elsewhere, major questions surround the Weinstein Company, whose co-founder Harvey Weinstein is battling both a cash crunch and his own board. TWC didn’t buy any movies at Sundance or last year’s Toronto, preferring to make its splashy deals for Matthew McConaughey‘s “Gold” and Michael Keaton‘s “The Founder” outside of festival settings.

And while many sales agents note the absence of Radius, insiders are interested to see whether Quinn and Janego will acquire any films for the new company they plan to launch shortly.

If Harvey does to decide to loosen the purse strings and make a move, he could plunk down a couple million on Michael Moore‘s latest documentary “Where to Invade Next” after working with the outspoken filmmaker on “Sicko” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

That history, for better or worse, could go a long way in Toronto, and no one knows how to market Moore’s films better than Weinstein, who has a knack for pulling rabbits out of hats.

There will certainly be plenty of activity at TIFF, but it’s unlikely the festival will yield the kind of wide-release title that will provoke a bidding war among major indie players like Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics.

Most of this year’s Toronto titles will be lucky to sell for $2 million – $3 million unless one breaks out from the pack like SPC acquisition “Still Alice” did last year on the strength of Julianne Moore‘s performance, which went on to win her an Oscar for Best Actress.

That said, one non-festival film that could seal a lucrative deal during Toronto is Stephen Frears‘ “Florence Foster Jenkins,” which stars Meryl Streep as the infamous opera singer and doesn’t have a home yet.

The fall festival circuit can be tricky for acquisitions and often requires strategy. While Drake Doremus‘ sci-fi romance “Equals,” starring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, may have benefited from the international press heaped upon its stars at the Venice Film Festival, it heads to Toronto with mixed reviews.

The same can be said of Dito Montiel‘s PTSD drama “Man Down” starring Shia LaBeouf, which garnered headlines overseas but did itself no favors in terms of landing a domestic sale. Star-driven vehicles are the name of the game at Toronto, and it’ll be interesting to see which films soar and which stall out amidst the sea of cinematic competition.