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TIFF 2006

Hungry distributors chase slim pickings

Pre-festival buying meant fewer films were up for grabs during the festival

From Monday's Globe and Mail

It was a seller's market at the Toronto International Film Festival -- just so long as you were selling the kind of big-name, big-buzz movie that distributors were looking for.

The general consensus was that Cannes earlier this year was soft. North American distributors apparently didn't see much they wanted to buy, particularly since foreign-language films haven't been drawing exceptional box-office numbers in the States recently. So, many were looking to Toronto to find new titles to fill their rosters. Think of it like this: Just as store owners need to stock new products on their shelves, distributors need new films, or customers aren't going to come.

As a result, a number of movies premiering in Toronto became hot commodities. Many, such as the documentaries Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing about that band's freedom of speech controversy and . . .So Goes the Nation about the 2004 U.S. presidential election, were snapped up even before the festival began by The Weinstein Company and IFC Entertainment respectively.

Pre-festival buying only further reduced the number of sought-after titles that were still available at the festival. TIFF's organizers even issued a press release weeks ago highlighting an assortment of available films, no doubt to entice buyers to still come.

Of course they came through, with chequebooks in hand.

Among the biggest acquisitions was Picturehouse buying North American rights to El Cantante, the salsa music biopic starring Jennifer Lopez and husband Marc Anthony, which reportedly closed for $4- to $6-million (U.S.) Friday morning, just as the 10-day festival was winding down and most industry deal makers had already left.

Other highlights included Lionsgate's hard-won acquisition of U.S. rights to Sarah Polley's Away From Her earlier in the week,while the suspense drama Death of a President, a fictitious what-if about the assassination of President George W. Bush, was bought in Canada by Maple Pictures and in the United States by Newmarket Films. Harvey Weinstein's The Weinstein Company added the documentary Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show for roughly $3-million and the horror film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane for about $3.5-million.

On the Canadian front, Odeon Films snapped up Canadian rights for Monkey Warfare, starring Don McKellar and Tracy Wright with an undisguised Toronto prominently in the background, while the zombie comedy Fido had a very strong festival and was sold by its U.S. distributor Lionsgate to territories around the world.

As Peter Block, president of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate, explained, this year's fewer number of available films tends to be part of a cycle in the industry.

"You just have to wait out the trend. I think as a distributor, you have to make sure you're not so self reliant on the festivals to sustain your slate [of films], and you have to do more in-house."

That can mean anything from a distributor getting more into the production end and financing films itself or acquiring films that are still in the script stage, as Lionsgate did with Fido.

"We won't come here saying we need to pick up three films [at TIFF]. What we say is, when we find the film that really moves us, we have to make sure that we move quickly to get it," he said.

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