Faced with the most adversity since this exact day 19 years ago when the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival was upended by the tragic terrorist attack on 9/11 that left nearly 3000 dead, organizers and buyers and sellers of films head into the weekend with uncertainty over a mostly virtual TIFF 2020 that is severely hobbled by a coronavirus pandemic that has left nearly 200,000 dead just in the U.S.
How will this year’s market play out? Who knows? Toronto doesn’t automatically guarantee a windfall of sales of finished films anyway. Last year, only one major deal closed before the buying crowd left Toronto, when HBO paid near $20 million for the Hugh Jackman-Allison Janney black comedy Bad Education.
Leigh Kittay Joins Black Bear As Head Of Film; Ben Stillman Heads TV
The festival is just getting underway and already Netflix has clocked an 8-figure deal for the Halle Berry-directed MMA film Bruised. That deal is in the same price range of Bad Education, so we’re already ahead of the pace of the last pre-pandemic Toronto. But unless the streamers that have thrived during the lockdown go on a buying spree, there’s no obscuring the adversity facing the 2020 TIFF market.
Gala premieres are being staged not at the Winter Garden, Roy Thomson Hall nor the Princess of Wales Theater, where in past years major acquisition titles and award season films were launched triumphantly by rapturous audience response in those big rooms. As a Toronto snob myself, I believe that if you’ve watched a fine film get discovered in one of those theaters, there are few communal moviegoing experiences quite like it. This time, there are small series of screenings that won’t be attended by American buyers and press because most are not allowed over the Canada border. Titles will be inhaled through drive-in premieres and secured links, neither of which provide the communal experience that make Toronto such a vibrant launch pad.
There are a bunch of good movies with stars and commercial concepts that will premiere, but buyers and sellers I spoke with predict this won’t be the same as the recent Virtual Cannes Market, where several massive deals were brokered for star-driven packages, many of them to the streamers that have thrived while theaters remained dark during the pandemic lockdown. Toronto fare often appeals to independent distributors. Will they be bold, when their revenue has been dry since March, when they are paying salaries and rent for offices they haven’t been in for six months? Will they bid on green light-ready packages when insurers are not writing policies that will cover the debilitating hardship that would happen if a star tests positive for COVID-19 – as Tom Hanks did on Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley film and Robert Pattinson did on Matt Reeve’s Batman movie? The financial exposure on a film that gets shut down for weeks could be catastrophic. There is also the question of when it will be safe to open a quality film in theaters and expect an audience to show up. While some have put a happy face on it, the $20 million domestic opening of the $200 million Christopher Nolan-directed Tenet is dauntingly low, and it is not entirely clear when America’s two biggest markets – New York and LA – will be open. Some told me they held back big titles to try for Sundance. By January, there might be a bit more clarity on theater attendance and the prospect of a virus vaccine by then.
One film braving all of this is I Care A Lot. A deliciously cynical satire directed by J Blakeson, it is the kind of movie that would play great to a Toronto audience. Rosamund Pike stars as a steely con woman who targets the elderly by using legal machinations to become their legal guardian. She throws them into care facilities and siphons off their assets. But an ideal mark turns out to be less than that when it turns out the senior has someone in her life (Peter Dinklage) who is as lawless and as ruthless as the guardian. These bad people go mano a mano in a series of lethal twists and turns in a film as dark and uncompromising as The Grifters.
Producer Teddy Schwarzman, whose Black Bear Pictures financed the film, acknowledges the challenge of launching to buyers during this trying moment, but he said they decided they had the goods and weren’t going to wait around for a vaccine to unveil. So it will premiere Saturday through TIFF in a gala premiere at the Ontario Drive-In in Toronto, with links provided simultaneously to buyers and press.
“It’s a different environment than festivals past, but we saw the success of numerous titles at Virtual Cannes, and the hunger that traditional distributors and streamers have for content, and we believe millions of consumers want to go back to the theaters and consume content in a safe manner when that is available,” he said. “We continue to be a society that thrives on entertainment culture. We thought long and hard on whether to wait for the world to open up because in an ideal world we would love nothing more than to screen this movie with an audience that can react to the storyline and various twists and turns, which would have been most satisfying for our filmmaker to experience as well as audiences and critics. At the same time, consumers, buyers and critics have gotten accustomed the last six months to being able to screen at home. Many of them are lucky enough to have nice screens and good setups with quality sound in order to make the experience immersive. The belief here is that theaters are clearly opening up slowly but surely. They’ve opened up in most countries overseas, and knock wood, the US is on a continuing positive trajectory.
“We want to make sure I Care A Lot is given the opportunity both by traditional distributors and streamers alike to reach its audience, without sitting around waiting to find out when there will be a vaccine introduced to the marketplace. The capacity for drive-ins is maybe a few hundred, and certainly it’s not the same experience as the Princess of Wales or Roy Thomson. But we premiered the Dave Franco-directed The Rental at a drive-in and audiences were hooting and hollering the entire way through and we ended up having some of the more positive theatrical grosses of this pandemic, from the resurgence of drive-in culture. This is a film audiences can have a lot of fun with at a drive-In and enjoy while taking away that there’s a much deeper richer level.”
Schwarzman said CAA Media Finance is selling domestic while STX International is handling offshore. The film’s release, he said, will “depends on who responds and how they want to release it. A streamer would have one plan for the film while a theatrical distributor would have another. What we’re hoping for is people respond to J’s intentions with this film and understand what it can be, and we’ll see where that leads us as far as the buyer landscape, and how best to release this film. The key for everybody in this environment is to be flexible while at the same time, recognize the tea leaves are point toward multiple avenues for exploitation.”
The marketplace for TIFF includes more than the usual amount of packages of films not on the festival roster, either packages or sizzle reels. In the latter category, I heard that Endeavor Content and CAA Media Finance showed buyers footage of Malcolm and Marie, the Sam Levinson-directed project that stars Tenet’s John David Washington and Euphoria’s Zendaya. Unclear if they were just stoking buyer interest or if a deal will be made off the promo footage. Anything is possible at this Toronto. Endeavor Content cleverly arranged for buyer screenings at a downtown LA drive-in for Concrete Cowboy, Penguin Bloom and the Midnight Madness thriller Shadow In The Cloud.
Here is a list of TIFF slate films and some packages that had buyers intrigued:
I CARE A LOT – Director: J Blakeson, Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza Gonzalez, Chris Messina. A legal conservator who defrauds elderly clients runs afoul of a gangster.
GOOD JOE BELL – Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green; Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Connie Britton, Reid Miller, Gary Sinise. After incessant bullying pushes his teenage son Jadin to commit suicide, Joe Bell embarks on a cross-country trek to spread awareness of the adversity his son battled. As Jadin’s witty and poignant presence walks alongside him, Joe is forced to confront his own complicity in Jadin’s suffering, and makes a promise that he won’t stop walking and he won’t return home until he is the father that Jadin deserved.
MLK/FBI – Director: Sam Pollard. Documentary explores the United States government’s surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.
PENGUIN BLOOM – Director: Glendyn Ivin. Cast: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver. Based on the true story of Sam Bloom, a young mother whose world is turned upside down after a shocking, near-fatal accident. Sam’s husband, her three young boys and her mother, are struggling to adjust to their new situation when an unlikely ally enters their world in the form of an injured baby magpie they name Penguin.
PIECES OF A WOMAN – Director: Kornel Mondruzco. Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Iliza Shlesinger, Sarah Snook, P: Stuart Manashil, Aaron Ryder, Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, LL: When Martha and Sean’s infant daughter dies shortly after birth, their marriage falls apart. Sales: CAA, BRON Releasing
SHADOW IN THE CLOUD – Director: Roseanne Liang. Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson. In the throes of World War II, a group of Allied soldiers take to the air in a B-17 Flying Fortress carrying a top-secret package. But this crew isn’t alone in the sky… lurking in the shadows, something with sharp teeth and a taste for chaos is tearing at the heart of the vessel.
NEW ORDER – Director: Michel Franco. Cast: Naian González Norvind, Diego Boneta, Mónica del Carmen, Fernando Cuautle, Eligio Meléndez, Darío Yazbek. The streets are in chaos during a wedding in a posh neighbourhood in Mexico City. Bride Marianne (Naian Gonzaléz Norvind), frustrated by her family’s refusal to help out a former employee’s ill wife, decides to take the woman to a clinic herself, hoping to get back before the judge arrives to officiate her marriage. She is deterred by the uprising that has spread through the city and given the military an excuse to take over. Capitalizing on this opportunity to further stratify the class system, the authorities round up any member of the upper classes found outside their neighbourhoods, send them to holding cells, and then ransom them back to their families, who are tricked into believing the protesters carried out the kidnappings.
THE WATER MAN – Director: David Oyelowo. Cast: Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello. A boy sets out on a quest to save his ill mother by searching for a mythic figure said to have magical healing powers.
CONCRETE COWBOY – Director: Ricky Staub. Cast: Idris Elba, Jharrel Jerome, Caleb McLaughlin, Lorraine Toussaint. An estranged father reconnects with his son in a world of African-American cowboys and horseback riding.
WASH ME IN THE RIVER – Director: Randall Emmett; Cast: Robert De Niro, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, John Malkovich. An action-thriller in the vein of No Country for Old Men, the Adam Taylor Barker script focuses on a recovering opioid addict who seeks revenge on the dealers responsible for selling the drugs that resulted in his fiance’s death. Two cops are hot on his trail.
76 DAYS – Director: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous. Documentary depicting the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals batting the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan.
BLOOD TIES – Director: Aaron Katz. Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Kiernan Shipka, Dylan Sprouse. Detective Reese Rezek obsessively investigates the brutal murders of Nancy and Derek Haysom, a seemingly ordinary couple in suburban Virginia. As Reese unravels dark possibilities behind their deaths, two suspects emerge: their daughter, Lizzy, and her boyfriend, Jens. Before they can be arrested, the young couple flees for Europe, drawing Reese into an international manhunt and a years-long search for the truth that spanned from 1985-91.
THE BRUTALIST – Director: Brady Corbet. Cast: Joel Edgerton, Marion Cotillard, Mark Rylance, Sebastian Stan. A Hungarian-born Jewish architect, in post-World War II America, is initially forced to toil in poverty after emigrating to the U.S. but his fortunes change after he wins a prized contract.
THE FATHER – Director: Tommy Wirkola. Cast: Donnie Yen, Alec Baldwin, Frank Grillo. Set against the iconic Irish-American gangland of Southie – Boston, this gritted, kinetic thriller charts the struggle of middle-class Hong Kong immigrant John Chung, making the best of his family’s new American life while working as a modest fish broker in the city’s infamous docklands. When his wayward teenage boys stumble upon four kilos of heroin, they’re hunted by a local crime ring and a group of corrupt cops. Forced to revive his past to protect his kin, John will stop at nothing until they are safe from harm.
ONE LIFE – Director: Aisling Walsh. Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn. Inspiring true story of Sir Nicholas Winton, whose unsung endeavors on the eve of World War II saved more than six hundred refugee children from their doom in Nazi death camps.