With Actors on Strike, Will Movies Still Score Big Deals at the Toronto Film Festival?

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The red carpets and lavish afterparties that send the media flocking to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) will be a lot less star-studded this year. That’s a necessary consequence of the actors and writers strikes that are roiling the movie business, leaving major studios and streamers without the kind of celebrity heat they typically rely on to give their awards contenders a flashy launch. But TIFF isn’t just a place to debut a film; it’s also a market for movies looking for distribution. And sales agents are divided on whether or not studios will be as willing to make a deal with all the labor turmoil.

John Sloss, the founder of the production and sales company Cinetic Media, is hitting Toronto looking for a distributor for “Hit Man,” the Richard Linklater movie that scored strong reviews at the Venice Film Festival. He doesn’t seem pessimistic about the possibility of scoring a major pact from a Netflix, an Apple or a more traditional studio that makes movies primarily for theaters, not streaming. “There’s a lot of money that’s been budgeted by these companies for content that hasn’t been spent and a lot of release slots that haven’t been filled,” Sloss says. “I can’t speak to the quality of what’s on offer, but the circumstances seem ripe for some big deals.”

Sloss’ optimism aside, sales activity for indie films at the markets and buyer screenings surrounding festivals like Toronto remain unpredictable. The ongoing labor strikes don’t just complicate celebrity attendance. In August, lead SAG-AFTRA negotiator Duncan Crabtree Ireland said that any buyer of an indie film appearing under one of the union’s interim agreements would need to comply with the guild’s new demands around residuals and other key terms. Privately, sales agents have convened their own legal teams to explore the validity of this.

One top agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the agreements were like an “inkblot test,” and that producers of these movies would need to assume responsibility for the union agreements — not a potential buyer. There are also major questions about which companies will be willing to belly up for the available titles (everything from Kate Winslet’s war story “Lee” to the Michael Keaton-directed thriller “Knox Goes Away”) given the uncertainty about what has been agreed to.

Still, buyers seem impressed with what’s available to purchase. Scott Shooman, the head of AMC Networks Film Group, which includes IFC, thinks that the movies that are being screened for studios seem more commercial, and likes the fact that established stars like Keaton and Anna Kendrick (“Woman of the Hour”) are moving behind the camera.

“In my experience, actors often make very good directors and have a much softer landing when entering that space,” he says. Plus, Shooman is pleased that “there are a lot of different types of movies that should be attractive to a lot of different types of distributors.”

Some sales agents opted to leave their stars at home instead of agreeing to an interim agreement with the actors union that would have allowed them to promote the project. But these waivers mean that the likes of Keaton, “Wildcat’s” Maya Hawke and “Close to You’s” Elliot Page would be allowed to attend TIFF on behalf of their films.

Still, as prominent members of actors and writers unions publicly blast media conglomerates and their CEOs (primarily Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav and Disney’s Bob Iger), some are skeptical that the big companies will be eager to bid on buzzy festival titles — especially considering the precedent they would set in agreeing to the guilds’ new terms without an official new contract in place. This could be a boon for smaller theatrical players like IFC Films, Magnolia, Janus and more. It could also bolster the slates of premium midsized players like A24 and Neon, who are not signatories to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the group currently in a standoff with the Hollywood unions).

But two other sales agents Variety spoke with that requested anonymity are skeptical that steamers like Netflix and Apple will want to lose competitive ground in bidding for prestige films, and might be surprisingly active.

Producers who are hoping to sell movies say that beyond interim agreement drama, they are mostly interested in finding the right home for their passion projects.

“I want to work with people who understand the film we made and who connect with it,” says Kate Solomon, producer of “Lee.” “And then I want that company to be able to engage a large number of people to see it.”

And while having an A-list actor on hand to do press can elevate a film’s profile, some producers see an opportunity in the lack of star wattage at this year’s festival. Quiver Distribution spent seven years developing and producing “Irena’s Vow,” a drama about a Polish nurse who saved 12 Jews from the Nazis. The company has lined up U.S. distribution, but is selling foreign rights, and it’s depending on reviews and word-of-mouth to generate excitement, not a bold-faced name above the title.

“We don’t have Bradley Cooper or Scarlett Johansson starring in this,” says Jeff Sackman, co-founder of Quiver. “I believe the absence of stars coming to TIFF will allow a film like ours to emerge where otherwise it would have been subsumed by all the attention on the celebrities. It levels the playing field a bit. Hopefully, the lack of stars will allow the focus to be on the quality of the films.”

With Actors on Strike, Will Movies Still Score Big Deals at the Toronto Film Festival?

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