By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 19, 2009 at 9:09AM
If industry-watchers didn't see it coming, they figured it out at this year's Toronto Film Festival.
The old independent market is over. A new one will take its place. But we are smack in the middle between the end of one paradigm and the start of another, and it's a scary place indeed. Producer Ted Hope is trying to rally the indie film community to take action to save itself.
If nobody knew anything before, they know even less now. The one sure thing is that moviemakers will now PAY to get their films released. The few remaining distributors can sit back and wait for movies to drop in their laps, often with P & A funds attached. All hopes of a hot sale at a festivals were dashed this year. Even Get Low, one of the hottest titles with Oscar-worthy performances on display, was still waiting at fest's end for distributors to see it and place a reasonable bid. (As of Friday, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia, Goldwyn were in the hunt.) Ex-ThinkFilm exec Mark Urman's new service distribution company Paladin is well-positioned to take on releasing chores on high-quality films that can't get arrested these days. There will be more than enough business to go around for the likes of Paladin and Abramorama Films (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) . Roadside Attractions and Apparition, with its relationship with Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group, are also taking on service deals.
I saw one movie after another that was unreleasable in the current climate. As lovely as many of them were, they weren't commercial enough. (Anthony Kaufman, Todd McCarthy and Karina Longworth weigh in.) It costs too much money these days to make a dent, a mark, an impression that will create enough urgency in filmgoers to make them go out and see a movie. While Ted Mundorff insists that business is up at indie-branded Landmark Cinemas around the country, and Apparition's Bob Berney is hopeful that exec changes at Cinemark and AMC will bring a new awareness to booking the right movies in the right locations, the indie market needs help. "Movies that rise above like A Single Man or Bright Star will have a theatrical life for quite a while," insists Berney. "For financial reasons, not enough good films were for sale for buyers. A lot of films were misses. If a film is not really special, there is no in between. It will not get a theatrical release. If it's a half-way movie, audiences will skip it and watch it at home."
On the positive side, with fewer movies hitting theaters in the next year, there may be more room to move. That gives exhibitors an opportunity to push indie screens in their multi-plexes and supply some much-needed diversity. But most of the 145 films on sale at Toronto will wind up streamed, downloaded and viewed on a small TV or computer or mobile screen. (Amazon and Netflix remain blind to the opportunity to step into the breach here. That's because they are engineers and software designers and don't understand the role of marketing.) "Exhibitors have to step up as fewer films get made and get more creative," says Berney. "Thank God for Ted Mundorff."
"It's a massacre," said producer Jonathan Dana of the blood on the floor after the festival's first week. "It's the end of funny money." Those funds are gone now for anything above a micro-budget level that is too risky or daring or global. Small-scale local productions will prevail, without counting on a North American theatrical release. But Dana believes that now, by dint of Darwinian forces of survival, movies will get better and stronger. Speaking of Darwin, the festival's opening night film Creation, a high-profile movie starring Paul Bettany as the radical scientist, also failed to sell.
Movies expected to eventually find homes with small distributors include Get Low, the Venice Fest winner from Israel, Lebanon (entirely shot inside a tank), French/Russian espionage thriller Farewell, the genre film The Disappearance of Alice Creed, doc Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer, and I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton. Rodrigo Garcia's earnest family drama Mother and Child features strong performances from Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Samuel L. Jackson. But who will figure out how to market it? "You have to create a lot of noise, with a lot of arrows in your quiver," says Fox Searchlight acquisitions exec Tony Safford. "The film, marketing, critics are all important. It's hard to rely on just one. Some of these films would have been released in another era."
For now, if budget-conscious Sony Pictures Classics and VOD-oriented distribs like IFC and Magnolia are the key buyers today, filmmakers around the world can no longer count on the North American market to pay their way, and will have to lower their costs and expectations. (And the DVD market is in decline, as well.) Producers Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Walker of Werc Werk Works, based in Minneapolis, keep their budgets below $5 million. As their first film, they funded Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, which was accepted at Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York, but was still awaiting a distributor at press time.
The paradigm shift also means dramatic changes in raising funds overseas (which tends to push producers to cast the wrong actors in the wrong films anyway). If indie companies can't rely on the indie marketplace to supply them with strong, marketable titles, they will have to produce more of their own, taking on more risk. "Stars have to be in a good film," points out Safford.
The Weinstein Co. paid seven figures for the only hot Toronto title for sale, A Single Man, partly because they needed the good PR, but also because they are one of the few companies, along with Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, that still believe in one: the theatrical marketplace, and two: the Oscars as a marketing boost. Look at TWC's The Reader last year, one of the few Oscar entries to benefit from campaign spending.
Fox Searchlight, Overture, Summit, Focus Features, Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Classics and Miramax all wanted to buy in Toronto. While they may buy later, at fest's end, they walked away empty-handed.