Toronto Market Preview 2019: Will All the New Streamers Boost Sales?

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off this week just as a clutch of new streaming services from Disney and WarnerMedia and Apple and Comcast prepare to launch.

As a result, sales agents and traditional indie distributors are bracing themselves for the impact this new set of content companies will have on the indie film market.

“As more streaming services enter the market, the landscape becomes more competitive for theatrical distributors and streamers alike, co-head of UTA Independent Film Group Rena Ronson told TheWrap. “This shift began when Netflix first emerged on the scene, and theatrical distributors subsequently had to become more aggressive in order to compete.”

Several sales agents and buyers said the marketplace heading into Toronto is “healthy” and “robust,” because every company is looking for prime content for 2020. But although distributors will be vying for the same titles, many insiders don’t expect the hefty price tags seen at Sundance earlier this year — where four titles sold for between $13 million and $15 million.

“It’s going to be an even playing field,” Kristen Konvitz, an agent in the international and independent film group at ICM Partners, said. “There are a lot of films — awards-worthy, art-house, genre, etc. — and everyone is in need of compelling content and actively looking for content. It seems pretty healthy and optimistic even though it’s been an uncertain year.”

One sign of caution is how few of the big-ticket Sundance acquisitions have connected with audiences. A24 nabbed Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” for somewhere between $6 million and $7 million and has watched the drama gross $16 million so far in theaters.

But Amazon Studios, which spent big in Sundance, has seen more modest returns: Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night” topped out at $15.5 million domestically in theaters after a $13 million Sundance purchase, while the $14 million acquisition “Brittany Runs a Marathon” has earned $637,000 in the first two weeks of its more gradual rollout, with more theaters to be added this weekend. The company spent another $14 million in Park City for the upcoming Adam Driver drama “The Report.” (An Amazon spokesperson told TheWrap that the company doesn’t measure the success of its films through box office only, but also through the film’s life on Prime Video — where “Late Night” starts streaming this Friday.)

Meanwhile, WarnerMedia’s New Line Cinema paid $15 million for the British feel-good drama “Blinded by the Light” to see just $10.6 million in ticket sales in its first three weeks.

“Obviously, Sundance was extremely active with big aggressive sales — some of the films have performed, and some haven’t done so well,” said Mikey Schwartz-Wright, an agent at UTA Independent Film Group.

As a result, ICM partners film finance agent Oliver Wheeler said, “The buyers are probably going to be a little more conservative in terms of the buy-in prices. I don’t think we’re going to have those record-breaking prices that we saw at Sundance.”

However, Saban Films President Bill Bromiley said that he thinks there will be “people with big pocket books ready to spend big money. The lineup for the festival includes a lot of commercial product ripe for the picking. I think you are going to see a lot of deals there, because it seems like an active marketplace.”

Few have pockets as deep as the major streaming services. While Netflix has been buying less and less at every festival, partly due to its ever-growing original production slate, the streaming giant remains active in documentary acquisitions. At Sundance, the streamer bought “Knock Down the House,” featuring Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and the Indian anthology series “Delhi Crime Story.”

But in addition to Netflix and the now Disney-owned Hulu (which acquired the award-winning documentary “Jawline” at this year’s Sundance), there will be a host of competitors just entering the space: Disney and Apple TV are both set to launch by the end of the year, with new services due next year from WarnerMedia (HBO Max) and NBCUniversal.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the new players in the market will behave,” Wheeler said. “There are huge question marks about the new streamers. I can see HBO Max making waves — they have a huge pipeline to fill before they launch, and same with Disney .”

One agent told TheWrap Apple should be a prominent player at TIFF this year, given that the company has been staffing up its new streaming division and made a few selective film acquisitions (including the Jada Pinkett Smith-produced drama “Hala” in Sundance). “Now that they’ve announced their service, the service will need product,” said the agent.

But even traditional indie distributors should be in the mix on key titles. A24 and Neon have been prominent players at the festivals for years, acquiring premium content. At Sundance this year, Neon bought Naomi Watts’ “Luce,” “The Lodge” and “Little Monsters,” while A24 acquired “The Farewell” and “Share.” At last year’s TIFF, Neon acquired the buzzy titles “Wild Rose” and “Vox Lux,” while A24 bought Julianne Moore’s “Gloria Bell.” However, Wheeler said both companies’ release slates are relatively “jam-packed” this year.

“A24 is playing a different ballgame — they are now like Miramax 15 years ago — they are a brand,” another sales agent said.

Other industry experts mentioned Bleecker Street, Roadside Attractions, Sony Pictures Classics and even David Glasser’s new 101 Studios as buyers that could have a busy two weeks at TIFF this year. Several individuals also mentioned Fox Searchlight, which could be looking to fill some slots on its release slate after its parent company’s acquisition by Disney earlier this year. “Searchlight is robust as ever,” a third sales agent told TheWrap.

“They have the desire to think outside of the box and utilize their prestige brand,” Wheeler added of Searchlight. “Whether that’d be picking up a foreign language film for remake rights or buying smaller indie films to be built into a TV show, they are thinking more intelligently about what the brand brings to the table.”

The second sales agent downplayed the relative importance of TIFF for film sales. “We will see things sell at Toronto relative of the size and scale of TIFF, but it hasn’t been a market indicator or a large market for three to four years in the way Sundance and Cannes are,” the insider said. “There will be some big sales but they won’t be at the volume of Sundance — nor would they ever be.”

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