The 80th Venice Film Festival has proved there is a still a strong appetite among audiences and buyers for art house films. The reviews from the Lido were some of the most enthusiastic in years — critics raved over Bradley Cooper’s Maestro and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things — and the Biennale saw multiple deals for the festival’s buzziest titles: Neon snatched worldwide rights to Ava DuVernay’s Origin, starring Aunjanue Ellis and Jon Bernthal; Mubi picked up Sofia Coppola’s Elvis-era biopic Priscilla, an A24 film in the U.S., for several markets, including the U.K., Germany and Latin America; and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist, his follow-up to his Oscar winner Drive My Car, closed multiple deals across Europe and Asia after locking down domestic distribution with Sideshow and Janus Films shortly before the festival.
But for the industry mainstream, Toronto will be the real stress test.
It’s at TIFF where people will begin to see the true impact of the dual strikes for the independent market and whether restrictions put in place by SAG-AFTRA to allow productions to go ahead — the so-called interim agreements —will spur or disrupt the indie ecosystem. And it’s at TIFF that people might start to discern the future of the midbudget movie.
Initial signs are good. Lionsgate locked in domestic rights to The Crow reboot in a reported eight-figure deal with CAA on the eve of TIFF, snatching up the long-in-development project. Lionsgate is expected to release The Crow next year.
Toronto has been a good home for the $10 million-$20 million mainstream film. For those with domestic distribution in place, TIFF is the perfect platform for a launch into the North American market and to kick off an awards campaign (though this year, with the SAG-AFTRA strike preventing many actors from promoting their movies, the impact will be muted). For those without U.S. distribution — see Richard Linklater’s action comedy Hit Man, Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut, The Woman of the Hour, or Viggo Mortensen’s neo-Western The Dead Don’t Hurt — the festival, with its always enthusiastic crowds, is one of the most effective shop windows for winning over hesitant buyers.
“Toronto could be the real turning point where we see if buyers are going to invest or are going to pull back,” notes one sales agent with several titles at TIFF, both finished films seeking domestic distribution and presales titles. “We’ll see if buyers, and financiers, are willing to take risks now that could pay off later.”
The TIFF gamble will come down to a bet on how long the strikes will last and the outcome of the negotiations between the unions and the AMPTP. Most expect the studios and streamers —traditionally Toronto’s biggest buyers — to hold off on big acquisitions, at least for films with interim agreements binding them to certain conditions, including more generous residuals for talent. Independent buyers could take the opposite tack, calculating that, as the strike drags on, the fewer films will get made and the bigger the gap in distributor’s schedules.
“We’re looking at films with [interim agreements],” notes Dirk Schweizer, managing director of German distributor Splendid Film, which typically buys projects at the script stage. “Because you at least know those films will get made, and we need to fill our slate.”
But either move — buy big now or wait and try to ride things out — is a risky one. The nature of the dual strikes means there is no sure road map, no market model to follow.
“It will be a matter of rolling the dice,” says one seller. “No one really knows what’s coming. So Toronto could be a killer market, or it could be dead.”