The Wheel Turns, Sort Of, at Toronto…And Beyond

From Gross Behavior, by Leonard Klady:

There weren't a lot of films to be had at the Toronto International Film Festival, and for acquisition executives that was a bit of a relief. You see, there's a glut of product in the pipeline and for most companies that fall somewhere between niche and mainstream their release schedules are sewn up through at least next summer.

One can just imagine the fretting that might have occurred had a movie come along to shake up industry complacency. The idea of a bidding war would have been headache inducing and then there would be the mad scramble to secure an Oscar qualifying run so as not to miss the prospect of cashing in on award season.

The Visitor, from filmmaker Tom McCarthy who made The Station Agent, was one title that was raising anxiety levels. The modestly produced film centers on a recently widowed professor (Richard Jenkins) teaching at a university in Connecticut. He also maintains an apartment in Manhattan and when he comes into the city for a conference discovers a young couple living in his flat.

They've been scammed and as both are illegal immigrants – he's a musician from Jordan; she's a jewelry designer from Senegal – they're vulnerable. The professor takes pity on them and quite a lot happens to change their lives in the course of 100 minutes.

The film was independently financed and premiered at the festival with the hope that favorable reaction would lead to a sale. But the better known players couldn't rationalize taking it on and it appeared that the film would have to tough it out for months. Then came the unexpected twist. Overture, a startup distribution-production company, stepped up and from all appearances was intent on securing a prestige title to bolster the credibility of a forthcoming release slate of middle brow pictures.

There's been a trend away from buying finished films at festivals like Toronto. Certainly the usual suspects have active slates and acquisition isn't primary to their business plan. Festivals provide them with more opportunity to promote their wares; create some advance buzz and line up press coverage that journalists can bank ahead of what appears to be an insanely crowded award season through the end of the year.

The Visitor got a lucky break but other well received films that ranged from the Rwandan war drama Shake Hands with the Devil to the horror thriller Stuck are playing the waiting game. It's not that either film's merits can't be discerned. The former clearly has a powerful true story that will appeal to upscale audiences worldwide and the latter can mine global genre appeal even if its balance of clever twists and visceral delights tilts toward the first element.

Both films nonetheless will require work to maximize their commercial potential. And in the absence of passion, the energy required will have to be put on hold.

Like it or not the pendulum has swung and for the immediate future it's decidedly a buyer's market. It's an environment where someone would be well advised to make a deal at the script stage or shop it around in a rough cut to ensure that one's costs are covered. The disadvantage to showing a completed film when the market is sated is that someone has to both been passionate about it and structure a rationale financial deal that works for all parties.

Aside from the fact that a lot has changed since the days when festivals tilted toward discovery rather than marketing, Toronto occurs much too late in the calendar to immediately capitalize on the heated generated during the event. An acquisition made here would require Herculean effort to get into movie theaters prior to the end of the year to qualify for awards. One of last year's best received films, Away From Her with Julie Christie, was purchased by Lions Gate who dallied for about five minutes on an Oscar run before concluding that it could not put together the press and marketing materials nor secure good screens.

So, the likes of Shake Hands with the Devil and other discoveries will just have to bide time.