The Toronto Film Festival acquisition parade continues. National Geographic Entertainment has acquired U.S. theatrical rights to The First Grader, the true story of an 84-year old Kenyan former Mau Mau rebel who battles to get an education. Justin Chadwick directed and Ann Peacock wrote the script. Pic played Toronto and Telluride.
ANALYSIS: Buyers and sellers of acquisition titles walked away from the Toronto International Film Festival exhausted from the all-night haggling sessions, but fully energized and cautiously optimistic. (See my take on the buyers below.) They feel the prolific deal making is a sign the specialty film biz has corrected a course of drunken dealmaking by studios that raised stakes to unreasonable levels before retreating. The Toronto fest’s primary role will always be as an awards season platform, and as a cost-efficient way to fly in junket journalists and Golden Globe voters for screenings and marathon press conferences. But this year, Toronto re-established itself alongside Sundance as the two most important festivals to secure distribution for finished films. Does all this mean specialty film is back?
After discussions with buyers and sellers all weekend, the answer is a qualified yes. At least it’s back to before studios set up divisions, overspent and elevated the economics to ridiculous levels. The game has been returned to the grinders happy to scratch for domestic grosses that don’t often pass $10 million. The flood of hedge funded movies that never should have been made has been flushed. This year’s crop reflected the course correction: I didn’t see a bad movie out of the dozen or so I watched, and most were shrewdly made and reflective of the economic reality. I counted two deals with north of $3 million minimum guarantees, Dirty Girl and Everything Must Go. There were a bunch more that just crossed 7 figures. While dealmakers said they couldn’t recall a Toronto festival with as many closed deals as this one, the money was a far cry from the years when, say, Thank You For Smoking, Trust the Man and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party all sold for north of $6 million. Or other fests where $10 million was spent for Hamlet 2, and $10.5 million for Little Miss Sunshine. Those are cautionary tales in this marketplace. This time, nobody made a deal where they will lose their shirts.
Rabbit Hole was originally a $10 million proposition, but that was cut in half, the perfect price for a movie with a career performance from Nicole Kidman. Everything Must Go was around the same price, despite starring Will Ferrell. Twilight producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey wrote that check, but it was a reasonable risk. The $3 million supplied by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, plus foreign sales, will make them whole. Movies like the Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator, rumored to have a budget a bit over $20 million, and the Terrence Malick-directed Tree of Life, are under greater pressure to perform domestically.
Agents packaging these pictures said that the days when foreign presales underwrote budgets is gone, but the new economic models can work. Films can still be built for profit if budgets are modest, and if soft money opportunities are maximized. Rebates as high as 60% are possible if you shoot in certain European locations. So are smart domestic, foreign and ancillary distribution deals that include a VOD component which can now mean high six-figures to a film. Oh yeah, and you have to make a deal with a distributor that doesn’t flake, as happened to fest films I Love You Phillip Morris, Casino Jack, and Happythankyoumoreplease.
“This sector never died, the audience for these films never stopped turning out for them,” said one acquisitions exec who made several major Toronto deals. “What crashed and burned were these studios that chased a mirage, hired 80 people with $10 million in overhead to staff divisions, spent too much acquiring and making movies and then blew $30 million on marketing. The implosion of DVD brought them all down. The remaining players are realistic about what these films can do, and we are excited by factors like VOD, or Netflix taking on the pay channels and paying real money for pay TV windows when Showtime and HBO weren’t. We’re all taking our shots conservatively, based on a lot of different models.”
I was pessimistic going in. It was my second fest and, last year, besides writing about Harvey Weinstein’s deal for A Single Man, I sat in the hotel mostly writing about Battleship, Real Steel, and other big studio deals because nothing happened. This time, buyers came to Toronto feeling there was no movie they had to have, and the festival got off to a slow start. But, suddenly, pics were selling competitively in the wake of premiere screenings. IFC responded to the raucous crowd reaction at the midnight premiere of James Gunn’s Super and outbid rivals, paying 7 figures. Then Harvey Weinstein paid north of $3 million to win Dirty Girl hours after its premiere. Buyers accustomed to waiting for sellers to take low offers were losing properties. The floodgates really opened on Wednesday when Sony bought James Wan’s Insidious, Weinstein bought Submarine, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions teamed for the Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator, Anchor Bay Films bought Beautiful Boy, and IFC bought Werner Herzog’s 3D docu Caves of Forgotten Dreams. All but the docu brought 7-figure minimum guarantees, I’m told.
EXCLUSIVE: Here’s the latest of what deal makers are calling an unprecedented volume of distribution pacts for Toronto International Film Festival fare: Focus Features has acquired distribution rights to Beginners, the film that writer/director Mike Mills unveiled on September 11th. Focus acquired worldwide rights, excluding Canada, France, Australia, Scandinavia and Benelux. The deal was brokered by UTA Independent Film Group, which packaged the film. I’m told the big part of the deal is a P&A commitment of around $2 million, with a generous gross corridor for the filmmakers. There were five other offers on the table for domestic distribution.
BREAKING NEWS: Oscilloscope Laboratories has just wrapped up North American rights to the Jalmari Helander-directed Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, following its Toronto International Film Festival. Pic is a dark re-imagining of the St. Nick myth. The film will be released this year, in time for the holidays. “This is really a unique film, the filmmaking exceptional, Jalmari’s sense of timing perfect,” said Oscilloscope chief
EXCLUSIVE: In their second major deal of the Toronto International Film Festival, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions have teamed to acquire Everything Must Go, the Dan Rush-directed drama that stars Will Ferrell. I’m told the deal was north of a $3 million minimum guarantee. I’ve heard that dealmakers at ICM and CAA had about 5 offers, but finally closed with Lionsgate and Roadside. This is the latest in a spectacular flurry of 11th hour acquisition deals at Toronto heading into the fest’s final weekend.
I’ve been so busy breaking Toronto deals that I didn’t note right away an Oscilloscope press release: it has acquired North American distribution rights to Kelly Reichardt’s Western drama Meek’s Cutoff. Adam Yauch previously distributed Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy in 2008. Pic premiered during Toronto and will be released next …
EXCLUSIVE: IFC Films has made yet another significant acquisition of a Toronto International Film Festival film, paying a low seven-figure minimum guarantee for domestic distribution rights on Peep World, the Barry W. Blaustein-directed film that stars Michael C. Hall, Sarah Silverman, Rainn Wilson, Ben Schwartz, Judy Greer, Kate Mara, Taraji Henson, Lesley Ann Warren and Ron Rifkin. The deal was made by CAA, which repped Peep World producers Occupant Films. Occupant principals Joe Neurauter, Felipe Marino and Keith Calder produced the picture.
TORONTO: IFC is closing a deal for U.S. distribution rights on the Werner Herzog-directed 3D documentary Caves of Forgotten Dreams. I’m told that the deal should be finished today. It’s a 6-figure pact, good money for a documentary whose TV rights were already claimed by The History Channel. It will …
TORONTO: The Toronto deals are exploding! Anchor Bay Films has just closed all English-speaking rights to Beautiful Boy, the Shawn Ku-directed drama. I’m told the deal was 7-figures, negotiated by Paradigm Motion Picture Finance Group’s Ben Weiss with Anchor Bay Films’ Kevin Kasha. Deal includes a P&A commitment. Lightning Entertainment is …
TORONTO: The Weinstein Company has acquired Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films-produced Submarine after an all-night bargaining session with WME. The deal is around $1 million minimum guarantee with a P&A commitment. There were three other bidders. The picture will be released in 2011. Directed by Richard Ayoade in his feature …
TORONTO: While buyers are seeing films and showing interest in some titles, Monday was slow compared to Sunday’s blitz of 7-figure deals for Super and Dirty Girl. The only action so far today: Sony Pictures Classics acquired U.S. rights to Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, a film buyers saw at Venice and …
EXCLUSIVE FROM TORONTO: In the second major acquisition of the day at the Toronto Film Festival, Dirty Girl is near a deal to be acquired by The Weinstein Co for distribution in the U.S., France, UK, Australia/New Zealand, and South Africa. I’m told there is a guaranteed theatrical release, and that the deal is north of $3 million. The deal is coming together quickly, and in short proximity of the film making its Toronto premiere this evening. The Abe Sylvia-directed indie is set in the 1980s and is about a young lady