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TIFF 2023 Has 50 Acquirable Films & Few Stars To Promote Them; Will Hungry Distributors Pounce?

Ask buyers and sellers at the Toronto Film Festival what they expect for the festival acquisitions marketplace that opens Thursday, and they’ll say either boom or bust. Even though there are almost 50 available titles here.

The uncertainty that twin Hollywood strikes has wrought brings uncertainty to what, on paper, should be the most robust Toronto in a long time. There will be far fewer stars on display; many backers have decided not to apply for SAG-AFTRA Interim Agreements, because it means turning off the streamers that have been the most prolific buyers of festival films for years. The optics of them acquiring a film now and accepting the guild terms they are fighting are too daunting.

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The strikes hung over Venice and Telluride like a metaphorical black cloud. It was better than the actual clouds that left the Burning Man festival participants scrambling for dry ground at the same time, but it dampened the two otherwise wonderful festivals that kicked off awards season. This includes numerous films that actors directed that premiered at those fests or will premiere in Toronto. Hyphenates whose backers didn’t sign IA agreements were essentially were forced to make a Sophie’s Choice: stay loyal to the spirit of guild solidarity and stay home, knowing they essentially turn their backs on an important buzz-building launch moment on films they worked so hard to make. Okay, Sophie’s Choice might be too strong a comparison, but for those actors who spent years to muster the courage to finally get behind the camera and aren’t there to support festival launches, it is like leaving your newborn baby in a bus station and hoping for the best.

I fail to see how this does anything other than hurt SAG-AFTRA members, and also the festivals that rely on star power. But little makes sense in this prolonged strike that has been defined by AMPTP and WGA and SAG-AFTRA mostly not meeting in a test of wills, as industry workers with no skin in that negotiating game try to stay afloat after not working for four months. As for the festivals, after the double wallop of the pandemic and now the labor strife that is decimating Hollywood, who could blame Bell for dropping out as TIFF’s major sponsor?

RELATED: Toronto Film Festival Dropped By Long-Time Sponsor Bell Canada

Among titles generating deal chatter at this year’s TIFF, Richard Linklater’s Hit Man didn’t sign the interim agreement; Daddio did. Latter is the feature directing debut of Christy Hall, co-creator and writer of the series I’m Not Okay with This. Daddio is basically two people in a cab from JFK to Manhattan, a driver and passenger, who reveal themselves in conversation over the course of a drive in snarled traffic. Hall’s writing and observations on life and romantic relationships and baggage are razor sharp and insightful, and so are the performances. Sean Penn, as the driver, does his best work in years, and Dakota Johnson is a revelation as the passenger, matching her co-star beat for beat. I saw a couple distributors at the film’s Telluride premiere, but making the IA deal keeps at bay the streamers that would likely drive up the price or gobble this one up. Penn, who was in the Ukraine when the film played Telluride, is expected here in Toronto. Johnson showed up in Telluride as producer and is expected in Toronto.

RELATED: ‘Daddio’ Review From Telluride Film Festival

Actors don’t really know how to handle all this and be respectful to their guild peers sidelined by the strike. Adam Driver came to Venice with Michael Mann for Ferrari, the Neon-distributed film that has an IA agreement. But Penélope Cruz, whose performance makes her a strong candidate for an Oscar nom, stayed away. Same with Nyad‘s Annette Bening, Jodie Foster and Rhys Ifans, who are all superb in the Netflix film, as is Colman Domingo in Rustin; and Emma Stone and the cast of Searchlight’s Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos’ fully realized WTF take on the Frankenstein story that is absolutely exhilarating and was the talk of Telluride.

RELATED: ‘Nyad’ Review From Telluride Film Festival

Many in Telluride feared that if the strike continues deep into awards season, actors who turned in career performances will suffer. Like Lily Gladstone, the Native American actress whose perf alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in the Martin Scorsese-directed Killers of the Flower Moon left her feeling like a lock for an Oscar nom coming out of Cannes, a true discovery. Chances like the one she got don’t come along often; Gladstone is the conscience that grounds this groundbreaking movie about the evil that greed drives men toward. She deserves every accolade and it would be a shame if she isn’t able to promote the film, which is set for theatrical release next month through Apple and Paramount. It could have a direct impact on her future career, and be a real momentum killer for her and others.

In this backdrop of uncertainty, the films at this Toronto have more potential than we have seen in years. That ranges from films playing the festival and the out-of-competition “Industry Selects” category, to a number of titles that will be privately screened for buyers. Save for some overseas production, few films are getting made, which will leave gaping holes in release slates. Word is that all the studios are here to kick the tires of films except for Warner Bros, which is still figuring out a specialty division to market and release films of this sort. Some believe that having three festivals dominated by the directors has cut out distractions and allowed for a focus on actual films rather than hype, and that buyers all understand that any film they buy here won’t be released until the strike is likely over. Several pic backers decided to give it a try. Miramax, whose Bill Block is here anyway with the Alexander Payne-directed The Holdovers (Focus paid a record $30 million for the out of market-screened film last Toronto), and Miramax also brought the James DeMonaco-directed horror pic The Home and Neil Burger-directed Inheritance for Industry Selects, and is privately screening the Russell Crowe exorcism thriller Georgetown. Miramax and several others hope the need for product, and the flush of cash ready because distribs haven’t been spending money, overcomes all.

Buyers have seen some of the Toronto films at Telluride and Venice, the latter of which yielded a strong deal from Neon for the Ava DuVernay-directed Origin. The Linklater-directed Hit Man is expected to be the big money deal of the festival, but it won’t likely be an early sale. Even though buyers have stepped up already after a rousing Venice bow that established this will be Linklater’s most commercial film in years, the intention of the sellers is to wait until the Monday Toronto premiere before auctioning it. There is a good chance a lot of deals will get made at Toronto, but possibly not until next week or after, when most will have vacated Canada and put away their passports.

Here are the movies buyers and sellers have told me have potential to be the hot titles:

Hit Man — Director, Richard Linklater; Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona. Powell plays Gary Johnson, an investigator who poses as a hit man to catch the people who’ve ordered a hit. Based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, script is by Powell and Linklater.

RELATED: ‘Hit Man’ Review From Venice Film Festival

Daddio — Director, Christy Hall; Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sean Penn. A young woman at JFK jumps into a Yellow cab one evening bound for Manhattan. They unravel the problems in her life in a surprising series of conversations.

The Critic — Director: Anand Tucker; Cast: Ian McKellan, Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong. A theater critic’s determination to keep his crank edge gets him involved in blackmail, deceit and murder.

Lee — Director: Ellen Kuras; Star: Kate Winslet, Alexander Skarsgard. Winslet plays Lee Miller, one of the most famous female war correspondents of WWII.

Poolman — Director: Chris Pine; Cast: Chris Pine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito. Pine’s helming debut is a kinetic Big Lebowski-like noir comedy where he plays an anxious pool cleaner who uncovers a curious conspiracy in the city of Los Angeles.

Knox Goes Away — Director: Michael Keaton; Cast: Michael Keaton, James Marsden. Keaton plays an assassin who’s losing his memory and teams with his estranged son to cover up a messy crime.

Aggro Dr1ft — Director: Harmony Korine; Cast: Jordi Molla. Portrait of a haunted assassin, shot with inrfared photography. A return to cutting-edged Kids form for Korine?

Aggro Dr1ft
Aggro Dr1ft

North Star — Director: Kristin Scott Thomas; Cast: Thomas, Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller. Three sisters hung up on the men in their lives, gather for the mother’s third wedding.

Boy Kills World — Director: Moritz Mohr; Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Yayan Ruhaian, Famke Janssen. Deaf child becomes a warrior bent on revenge after seeing his family murdered. Could be the next Sisu/The Raid-type mayhem-filled actioner.

In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon — Director: Alex Gibney. Definitive look at the life and music of the great musician.

Mother, Couch — Director: Niclas Larsson; Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, Taylor Russell. When mother stations herself on a green couch at a remote furniture store, her three grown children are left to figure out why.

A still from the TIFF title 'Mother, Couch.'
A still from the TIFF title 'Mother, Couch.'

The Monk And The Gun — Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji. Set in 2006, when the Kingdom of Bhutan began its transition to democracy, this playful ensemble drama from writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji is a poignant parable about the impossibility of embracing modernity without reckoning with the past.

A scene from The Monk And The Gun
A scene from The Monk And The Gun

RELATED: ‘The Monk And The Gun’ Review From Telluride Film Festival

Gonzo Girl — Director: Patricia Arquette; Cast: Camilla Morrone, Willem Dafoe, Patricia Arquette. Arquette’s highflying, fast-paced directorial debut is based on Cheryl Della Pietra’s semi-autobiographical novel chronicling her time as Hunter S. Thompson’s personal assistant.

Gonzo Girl movie
Patricia Arquette’s ‘Gonzo Girl’

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