I’m back from Toronto after TIFF 2015. After Cannes and before American Film Market, Toronto tends to be a slow market for distribution deals, with only a few new pre-sales projects launched and new movies announced.

Finished films at the festival mostly focus on getting a North American deal to put them in a stronger position for foreign. That can happen at the festival for the hot titles, but is often drawn out in the following weeks. Distribution is increasingly a year round business and I’m sure we’ll see some more deals in the coming weeks and at AFM.

Here are my thoughts from the inside of the market.

Pre-buys Beat Out Completed Content

This year TIFF was sluggish and soft on sales. Many of distributors I work with and spoke to were disappointed with the shortage of commercial content on offer, resulting in a muted market. There weren’t the bidding wars like last year, where Chris Rock’s Top Five was snatched by Paramount for $15 million.

Instead, the big deal news came from pre-buys and private screenings. Paramount pounced on the Meryl Streep/Stephen Frears directed drama Florence Foster Jenkins about a failed opera singer, after seeing footage from the film. It’s been a hot project since its launch at AFM last year, where it locked down deals across several major territories.

Distributors want theatrical quality movies and they’re willing to roll the dice on films at various stages in production to get those headline star heavy commercial films.

Packaged films for pre-sale are often more appealing than the completed content available, which has a trickle down effect with this year’s TIFF’s festival line up. Many of the films screening already had distribution in place from earlier pre-buys.

Older Audiences Matter

The grey pound is on the rise, with distributors increasingly seeking content that will appeal to older audiences. Older audiences are the legacy generation. They have disposable income to spend. They still go to the cinema. They still buy DVDs and they’re less likely to pirate content.

The Australian distributor I work with is specifically looking for films that will appeal to older female audiences. Their profile is the kind of woman in her 50s or older, who goes to the cinema once a week with her friends and then buys the DVD when it comes out. Names like Juliette Binoche, Kristen Scott Thomas, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and of course, Meryl Streep can move the needle for this market.

It’s an interesting niche which can be very profitable if done right. Philomena and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had budgets of $10M and $12M, grossed $100M and $136M worldwide respectively.  Feel good content with a touch of mischief can work very well.

The Russian Rouble Crash Rocks Distribution

Russia was one of the world’s largest markets for film, but with the rouble taking a tumble to nearly half a value a year ago, distribution’s been hit hard.

It may be an international business, but distribution deals are signed and paid for primarily in US dollars. For foreign buyers, your spending power depends on the strength of your currency.

When your currency tanks, you’re in trouble. Some Russian distributors are having trouble honouring earlier deals and pre-buys. In turn, sales agents with projects that would have appealed with CIS audiences are having trouble delivering on their estimates when the rouble was strong.

It also hits production. Here’s an example from TIFF from a chat I had with one of the leading sales companies. They were considering putting together a Jason Statham action movie. A year ago, they could have counted on getting a deal in the range of $2.5M from CIS (Russia and other Central Asia and European countries). Today, they’re more likely to get $500K and they’re trying to figure out if the numbers still add up.

Rising Stars Are A Family Affair

Want to get ahead as a young male actor in Hollywood? It helps if you come from a celebrity family. Luke Hemsworth, brother of Chris and Liam, is building a name in genre movies . Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, has supporting roles in next year’s Snowden and Suicide Squad and Jack Kilmer, son of Val, was announced to join Lotus Entertainment’s sci-fi thriller Exo at TIFF.

No one said the movie business was a meritocracy. The right surname has recognition value and gives a marketing angle and a hook for press. That said, longevity depends on talent.

What Makes A Hit Is Still A Mystery

In the words of William Goldman, “no one knows anything.”  When it comes to pre-buys and distribution, everyone’s making their best informed guess, but it’s hard to predict what works and what doesn’t.

I was chatting with one of my distributor clients, an industry veteran with decades in the business. Years ago, he ended up taking Soderberg’s Traffic as pre-buy. It was pushed on him as a package with a project he actually wanted. The script was strange and difficult to picture and he wrote it off as the cost of doing business. It went on to win the Oscar. Same thing happened with Good Night And Good Luck.

The reverse is also true. There have been some great projects with excellent scripts, a strong director and cast attached that have turned out terrible. There are so many variables that can make or break a movie. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. If there was, the banks would be running the business.

Distribution has its own vagaries. A burst of good weather can send people to the beach or parks and keep them out of the cinema. My client keeps all the major football matches in his country on a calendar in the office and plans his release schedule around them, to time the best dates for male orientated releases. An actor might have a meltdown and burn their public goodwill, or an issue might suddenly hit the headlines and make a movie topical.

Earlier this year, I read the script for Room. It’s based on a best selling book inspired by the Fritzl case. It was great writing, but on really difficult subject matter. It could easily slide into melodrama or depression and be a tough watch and tough sell for audiences.

The finished film premiered at Telluride and won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. FilmNation, the sales agents are delighted with it. Director Lenny Abrahamson has done a fantastic job. It’s one of the rare occasions when the final movie is absolute best version of the film, and Brie Larson is hotly tipped for an Oscar nomination. When it all goes right, it’s wonderful.

Further Reading

IndieWire: Toronto Deal Wrap: What Sold, What Hasn’t, and What’s Coming Up

Screen Daily: Toronto wrap: more buyers, less fanfare

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

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