TIFF Has More Films for Sale Than Ever, but the Strike Is Squeezing the Market

The Toronto International Film Festival has more films for sale than ever this year; a whopping 50 features are trying to make acquisition deals. But sales have been brought to a crawl thus far due largely to the uncertainty brought by Hollywood’s double strike, agents told TheWrap.

“It’s really a frustrating Toronto,” said one top sales agent, who screened a competition film this weekend for industry buyers. “There are too many films, the studios are slow and there’s too much uncertainty because of the strike.”

Two films were in play for a sale, according to one studio insider: Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut, “Woman of the Hour,” a drama about a serial killer who was on “The Dating Game” in the 1970s; and “His Three Daughters,” starring Elizabeth Olsen, Natasha Lyonne and Carrie Coon as three sisters who come together to prepare for a family death.

But by Sunday evening, no sales had been announced since the start of the festival. Numerous sales agents who spoke to TheWrap said there is a lot of trepidation surrounding sales talks for the films screening at TIFF this year, since no one knows just how long it will take for Hollywood studios to reach deals with the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA that will allow their members to promote films for major studios and set new terms for streaming compensation.

During an online press conference on Aug. 15, SAG-AFTRA national executive director, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland predicted that films that have signed the interim agreement would dissuade Hollywood’s major studios from making bids on films approved for the interim agreement at the fall festivals.

This is because under the agreement they would be required to agree to the streaming revenue terms in the guild’s proposed contract under any acquisition deal.

“People are confused and don’t know what to do because of the strike,” a producer who is selling his film at Toronto said, on condition of anonymity. “That’s the biggest challenge. The interim agreements are vague and it’s introducing a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace.”

At least 16 films on the Toronto program have been approved for the interim agreement, along with others still pending approval.

Sales agents confirmed that this was the reality on the ground; CAA’s 35 or so films for sale have not signed interim agreements because of this, but that general uncertainty was a bigger obstacle.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has not reached out to SAG-AFTRA to resume talks in the two months since the strike began.

Woman of the Hour
“Woman of the Hour” still (Courtesy of TIFF)

Sales agents said there has been confusion among their ranks about what they can and cannot do under the terms of the interim agreement. Further complicating this year’s market is the fact that some independently produced films, such as Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” and “Woman of the Hour” completed shooting prior to the start of the strike and therefore did not need the interim agreement and are not bound to its terms in any sale.

One studio insider told TheWrap that the strike, and the push by writers and actors in Hollywood for better streaming compensation, has left AMPTP members uncertain as to how long the strike would last and what terms on streaming will be agreed upon whenever talks resume and a final deal is made. True to Crabtree-Ireland’s prediction, the studios are steering clear of interim agreement films for that reason.

With those top players out of the market, the offers have been slow to come in. For Creative Artists Agency, for example, the only deal made in Toronto came just before the festival officially started when Lionsgate, a non-AMPTP distributor, acquired the North American rights to an upcoming remake of “The Crow” starring Bill Skarsgaard and FKA Twigs. That project finished production before the strike began and is set for a theatrical release sometime in 2024.

But aside from that, sales sources said CAA has yet to close any deals at TIFF despite its significant presence at the sales market. That doesn’t mean, however, that talks aren’t happening.

“There are back-room conversations going on,” the sales agent said, describing tentative deals that are being made between sales reps and studio acquisition execs with plans to hash out the details and make announcements whenever the strike ends.

That’s a complete flip from how festival markets usually go, with studios and their PR teams quick to announce when they’ve made a big purchase on a buzzy title. “It looks bad to show victory at the festival. No one wants to promote that they’re getting business done,” the agent said.

Agents have also pointed out that the unprecedented number of indie films on the Toronto festival schedule isn’t something agents and buyers are used to. Usually, the focus at TIFF is on films that are already set up with distributors and which are using the festival as a launch pad for awards season and to gin up interest among audiences.

With striking actors staying away from major studio Oscar hopefuls, the floor has opened for a wider array of indie titles, too many for distributors who are still interested in bidding to see right away.

Agencies are still holding out hope that, with a few more days of screenings, enough buzz will build for the non-interim agreement films they have on offer to get a good sale in the coming week, even if there’s the chance that their actors and writers won’t promote them if the strike continues into the fall and possibly into 2024.

“There’s 50 films here, so the sales are coming more slowly,” one agent said. It’s impossible to be at all of the screenings, so our job as sales agents is to be patient.”

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