How a Small Film Slate at Toronto Film Festival Translated Into Big Sales

Ella Castle

“People are buying with the notion that things will get back to some level of normalcy and some level of physical engagement again,” IFC Films’ Arianna Bocco says With a slimmed-down film slate, a delayed awards season schedule, a virtual market and uncertainty around releasing films theatrically, this year’s Toronto […]

“People are buying with the notion that things will get back to some level of normalcy and some level of physical engagement again,” IFC Films’ Arianna Bocco says

With a slimmed-down film slate, a delayed awards season schedule, a virtual market and uncertainty around releasing films theatrically, this year’s Toronto sales market was meant to be active, but not necessarily a moment for distributors to write big checks.

So how did that work out? Not only did we see Netflix go big on two splashy awards dramas in the form of “Pieces of a Woman” and Halle Berry’s “Bruised,” Solstice Studios made its first big play by nabbing the worldwide rights to the Mark Wahlberg drama “Good Joe Bell” for a whopping $20 million.

Though TIFF only screened 50 movies at its virtual festival, many of them have found homes, including Vertical Entertainment and Hulu buying the Chloe Grace Moretz thriller “Shadow in the Cloud” and IFC Films buying Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK/FBI.”

And distributors and agents who spoke with TheWrap say deals are likely far from over. For one, an individual with knowledge says the Naomi Watts drama “Penguin Bloom” has several bidders circling the project, and a deal is expected to close within the week.

“There was a nice range of movies that streamed well or sold well and were talked about. It’s not even remotely the same as being there, but under the circumstances, I would say it was a complete win for TIFF,” Solstice Studios CEO Mark Gill told TheWrap. “There’s a lot of quality movies that will be the right pick for one distributor or another. There were a lot of good movies this year.”

Solstice picked up the worldwide rights on “Good Joe Bell” from director Reinaldo Marcus Green, expecting that the film can and should have a theatrical presence both domestically and abroad. The film fielded several other bids in the expectation that it could be an awards play behind a great performance from Wahlberg. And Gill says that the team at Solstice was unanimous in their love for the film and its ability to reach a wide audience.

“I suspect if everyone had been in the same room, it would’ve been even more of a frenzy,” Gill said.

“When we saw the film, we immediately felt that this should be a film that should be viewed in theaters, not just domestically but worldwide,” Crystal Bourbeau, Solstice Studios’ head of acquisitions and international, told TheWrap. “We’re really excited diving into that and are going to finalize our worldwide distribution plans.”

And though Solstice has already proven its ability to release a film amid a pandemic, seeing some box office success on the back of the Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged,” thinking ahead to 2021 is something that other distributors are going to have to keep in mind if they hope to compete in still uncertain conditions.

“Pieces of a Woman” – Netflix

“People are buying with the notion that things will get back to some level of normalcy and some level of physical engagement again, and we have to believe that, or we’re looking at a completely different scenario,” Arianna Bocco, EVP of acquisitions and production at IFC Films, told TheWrap. “So people need to be prepared for 2021 with films, because otherwise you’re going to be catching up because there’s no production and there will be no films to release.”

Bocco says IFC will already be looking ahead to both the American Film Market and Sundance 2021 in filling its slate for next year and beyond, and they’re continuing conversations with sales agents and expect the remaining films at TIFF to be sold soon, even if she doesn’t expect more deals that will justify a $20 million price tag.

“They were the first festival to pull off a virtual festival that I think from all angles was successful. It certainly as a marketplace was very active and very successful, and I feel like most of the films that were presented will be acquired in good deals as well,” Bocco said. “While not ideal, and it’s never ideal that we’re all doing this from our homes, as far as the business went, from what was presented, I think it worked extremely well.”

And because this year’s TIFF lacked the major studio awards contenders vying for attention and early buzz, buyers came out for the smaller, more art house titles, like Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” that sold to Amazon back in the summer. And if brick and mortar distributors are still uncertain about the theatrical market, that hasn’t been a concern for the streamers, who all made the best out of a less than perfect situation.

“At a nontraditional time in this business, we’ve had a tremendous run this past few months, and our eye towards the future of the marketplace is as bright as it’s ever been, with audiences globally demanding a broad array of genres and styles to suit every taste,” Alex Walton, EVP, advisory, film group at Endeavor Content told TheWrap. “With streamers continuing to emerge alongside traditional players, the marketplace remains robust and evolving rapidly with global trends as each festival arrives.”

Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this report.

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