iThe Toronto Film Festival got underway last night with the Gala premiere of the Bill Condon-directed DreamWorks Julian Assange film The Fifth Estate. Today, the acquisitions market should get going with the first screening of the Jason Bateman-directed comedy Bad Words and Saturday’s premiere of Once helmer John Carney’s Can A Song Save Your Life?
Toronto has long served a dual role as a global platform to launch prestige films into the Oscar race, as well as a place where distributors can bolster slates with acquisitions of finished films that need someone to release them. The odd thing about this year’s marketplace: the biggest challenge facing sellers is to get the major buyers to focus, because they are so preoccupied with the films they are launching in the Oscar race from Toronto that dealmaking is a distant second on the priority level. Whether it’s The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, CBS Films or Focus Features, everybody has a viable Oscar horse. Frankly, there is less early chit-chat about deal prospects than there is about how the end-of-year releases of Oscar corridor films will be as crowded and brutally competitive as the summer season that just passed. There are way more films platforming and playing through the winter than was the cast last year. Just as some worthy summer blockbusters underperformed because of the onslaught, upcoming prestige films will be under extreme pressure to perform.
Here, the major distributors that have the funds to create bidding battles have tons of product at Toronto. SPC’s Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have nine movies playing, and TWC’s Harvey Weinstein has six. The challenge facing sellers will be to get those buyers to wrap their arms around new product that will fill slate holes in 2014. Everybody is loaded for bear for the fall and early winter. This won’t be a replay of the times past, when films like Shame, The Wrestler and Rabbit Hole were acquired and launched from festivals right into Oscar season.
Even the title people seem most sparked about, Carney’s Can A Song Save Your Life, comes with an asterisk. The film, which stars Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo in a drama about the teaming of a washed-up producer and aspiring singer-songwriter, has already been seen by the divisions of Sony, which has a short window to match a bid because it developed the script. So while CAA and UTA are working together on this film for a U.S. rights deal, will buyers be wary of being stalking horses, when Sony has some matching rights?
Enough of the gloom. Several reliable prognosticators on the buying and selling side tell me there are plenty of acquisition titles with solid casts and interesting directors, and there are numerous genre films playing at midnight here that will scare up deals. The challenge will be in getting more than one distributor to engage and create bidding. Recent acquisition successes like Lee Daniels’ The Butler show there is a market for thoughtful pictures and an opportunity for crossover. The Weinstein Company, which released that film, will be buying — it already took one of the most prominent titles, Tracks, off the table before the fest started. Weinstein aggressiveness tends to get other buyers going. So, I expect lots of deals, but there may well be in negotiations that last beyond the festival as sellers try to find the right fit for their films and distributors try not to spend drunkenly. Here are the titles that buyers seem most sparked about:
BAD WORDS – Director, Jason Bateman. Cast: Bateman, Allison Janney, Phillip Baker Hall, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand. Seller, CAA. After discovering a loophole in the rules of the National Spelling Bee, a disruptive 40-year-old dominates the pre-pubescent competition and forms an unlikely friendship with an awkward Indian boy. It’s Bateman’s first directing effort after establishing himself as a film comedy stalwart. This one gets its first showing at the Ryerson tonight at 9:30 PM. Because no one has seen it, a deal could go quick.
CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE? – Director/Writer, John Carney. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Kiera Knightley, James Corden. U.S. Seller: CAA/UTA. A washed-up music producer and an aspiring singer-songwriter help give each other the break they need. Carney directed the gem Once, which launched out of 2007 Sundance and worked also as a soundtrack and a Tony-winning stage musical. Sony has the inside track, either for Sony Pictures Classics or Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group, but a rival high bid could take this one. First screening: Saturday, 6:30 PM, Princess of Wales.
THE RAILWAY MAN –Director, Jonathan Teplitzky. Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine., Seller: CAA/Lionsgate. True story of a British Army officer who is tormented as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labour camp during World War II. Decades later, Lomax discovers that the Japanese interpreter he holds responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him, and his haunting past. First screening, today, 6:30 PM, Roy Thompson Hall.
ALL IS BY MY SIDE – Director/Writer: John Ridley. Cast: Andre Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots. Seller: CAA/Content. This is OutKast’s Andre 3000 playing rock god Jimi Hendrix in his formative years. There hasn’t been a movie about Hendrix, whose heirs have consistently refused to allow the late guitarist’s songs to be used. They made the movie anyway. First screening: Saturday, 9PM, Elgin. This hasn’t been screened yet, so this could go quick.
SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON Director: Mike Myers. Seller: WME. In 1991, music manager Shep Gordon held Mike Myers over a barrel a few weeks before shooting Wayne’s World regarding an Alice Cooper song Myers wanted to use in the film. They have been close friends ever since. Twenty-two years later, the story of Gordon’s legendary life in the über-fast lane: capitalist, protector, hedonist, pioneer, showman, shaman… Supermensch! First screening, Saturday, 1:30 PM, Roy Thompson Hall.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HIS/HERS – Director/Writer: Ned Benson. Cast: Jessica Chastain, William Hurt, Viola Davis, James McAvoy. Seller: WME/Myriad. A married couple experiences a difficult time in their relationship. It’s shown as two films, one through the eyes of the husband, the other of the wife. The non-traditional format is the wild card on this one, but the cast is stellar. First screening: Monday, 2 PM, Elgin.
THE DOUBLE – Director: Richard Ayoade. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor. Seller: WME/Protagonist. A contemporary adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s doppelganger tale. First screening: Saturday, 8 PM, Winter Garden Theatre.
ENEMY – Director: Denis Villeneuve. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Isabella Rossellini. Seller/ Pathe/WME. Adaptation of Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s The Double, about the troubled psyche of a man who is torn between his mistress and his wife. And, he has a double. Villeneuve directed the Toronto hit Incendies and also has The Prisoner playing here before its wide release before this dark character thriller comes out some time next year. First screening: Sunday, 6PM, Ryerson.
FADING GIGOLO – Director: John Turturro. Cast: Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara. Seller: ICM/QED. Turturro aspires to be a Don Juan to raise money for his friend, played by Allen, who effectively becomes his pimp. First screening: Saturday, 9:45 PM, Isabel Bader Theater.
THE F WORD – Director: Michael Dowse. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Rafe Spall. Seller: UTA/eOne. Wallace and Chantry meet by chance at a party and they feel the chemistry, but he is recovering from a failed relationship and she has a serious boyfriend. Can they cross the friend barrier into something more? Buyers like the promo reel. First screening, Saturday, 9 PM, Ryerson.
FELONY – Director: Matthew Saville. Cast: Joel Edgerton, Melissa George, Jai Courteney, Tom Wilkinson. Seller: CAA/The Solution. Driving home from a celebratory drink with his team after the long awaited bust of a major crime gang, a police officer runs a young cyclist off the road. After he pulls over to give aid to the child fellow officers arrive at the scene and ask for details about the accident, In a split second decision he tells them a lie which will change all their lives. Edgerton wrote the script and buyers liked the footage they were shown at Cannes. First screening: Saturday, Lightbox 5.
DEVIL’S KNOT – Director: Atom Egoyan. Cast: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, Alessandro Nivola, Amy Ryan. Seller: WME/CAA. The saga of the West Memphis 3, as a trio is convicted of brutally murdering three Arksansas boys without a shred of physical evidence, and an investigator finds there are too many holes to ignore. First screening: Sunday, 9 PM, Elgin.
THE GREEN INFERNO – Director/Writer, Eli Roth. Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Sky Ferreira. Seller: CAA/Exclusive. Student activists from New York City travel to the remote jungles of Peru in order to stage a protest but find they are on the menu when they encounter a tribe of cannibals. Roth is a Toronto staple and his movies, though gory, have a stunning success rate. First screening: Saturday, 11:59 PM, Ryerson.
HATESHIP LOVESHIP – Director: Liza Johnson. Cast: Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Christine Lahti, Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sami Gayle. Seller: UTA. Johanna Parry moves to a new town to work for Mr. McCauley and his granddaughter, Sabitha. Sabitha and her friend trick Johanna into a one-way epistolary romance with Sabitha’s father Ken. Johanna lights on fire, and commits a criminal act to get to her lover, who barely knows she exists. First screening: Today, 2:30 PM, Princess of Wales.
HORNS – Director: Alexandre Aja. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Heather Graham. Seller: WME/Red Granite. Blamed for the brutal murder of his longtime girlfriend (Temple), a small-town guy (Radcliffe) awakens one morning to find a pair of horns growing from his head. First screening: Today, 6 PM, Bloor Hot Docs. Section: Vanguard, Sales: WME/Red Granite.
JOE – Director: David Gordon Green. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan. Seller: CAA/WestEnd. Joe Ransom, hard-living, hot-tempered ex-con, becomes a fierce protector of a hard luck kid who awakens a paternal instinct in the rough loser. First screening: Monday, Sept 9, 6:30 PM, Princess Of Wales.
LIFE OF CRIME – Director/Writer: Daniel Schechter. Cast: Elmore Leonard, C: Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher, John Hawkes, Jennifer Aniston, Will Forte, Mos Def, Mark Boone Jr., Seller: CAA/WME. Schechter adapted this from The Switch, a novel by the late Elmore Leonard that brings back Jackie Brown characters Ordell and Louis. Here they team up to kidnap Mickey Dawson, the wife of a corrupt Detroit real estate developer, only to find he refuses to pay the ransom. First screening: Saturday, 1:45 PM, Scotiabank 3.
LOCKE - Director/Writer: Steven Knight. Cast: Tom Hardy, Ruth Wilson. Seller: IM Global/CAA. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, who receives a phone call that sets him in a desperate attempt to keep his life from collapsing around him. First private buyer screening: Today, 9:30 AM, Lightbox 7.
NIGHT MOVES – Director/Writer: Kelly Reichardt. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard. Seller: UTA/Match Factory. Three radical environmentalists coming together to blow up a hydroelectric dam. First screening: Sunday, 9 PM, Ryerson.
THIRD PERSON – Director, Paul Haggis. Cast: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Olivia Wilde, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger, Moran Atias. U.S. Seller: CAA/Paradigm. Love, passion, mystery, betrayal and hope infuse Paul Haggis’ new feature, which follows the interrelated stories of three couples in three cities, Rome, New York and Paris — each with its own secrets. First screening: Monday, 9:00 PM, Visa Screening Room (Elgin).
UNDER THE SKIN – Director: Jonathan Glazer. Cast: Scarlett Johansson. Seller: FilmNation/WME/CAA. Aliens descend upon Earth to abduct hitchhikers to be used for culinary purposes back home where human meat is considered a delicacy. Film showed in Telluride. First screening, Monday, 10 PM, Princess Of Wales.
YOU ARE HERE – Director/Writer: Matthew Weiner. Cast: Owen Wilson, Zach Galifinakis, Amy Poehler, Laura Ramsay. Seller: CAA/ICM/Lionsgate Intl. When a womanizing local weatherman hears that his off-the-grid best friend has lost his estranged father, the two return to his childhood home. Once there, they discover Ben has inherited the family fortune, and the ill-equipped duo must battle Ben’s formidable sister and deal with his father’s gorgeous 25-year old widow. Feature directing debut of Mad Men creator. First screening: Saturday 3 PM, Ryerson.