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Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy in the film Jackie. (Toronto Film Festival via AP)
Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy in the film Jackie. (Toronto Film Festival via AP)

Reading between TIFF’s dotted lines reveals film industry’s crises and plans Add to ...

It is a buyer’s market, but everyone seems to be saving up for a rainy day. That’s the message coming from the business end of this year’s almost-over Toronto International Film Festival, where high-figure deals have been as rare as a functioning Scotiabank Theatre escalator, and just as sweated over.

Although it has been a few years since TIFF was known as a market hot spot – the town where Paramount, for instance, paid a whopping $12.5-million (all figures U.S.) for Chris Rock’s Top Five in 2014 – things seem especially dry this edition.

Because of a host of factors – buyer’s remorse (STX picked up Hardcore Henry from last year’s fest for $10-million, only to barely make that back at the domestic box office); an exhausted market drained from huge deals at Sundance and Cannes; a tumultuous art-house landscape; and increasing concerns over China’s status as a box-office saviour – the splashy acquisitions that once earned TIFF headlines around the world just aren’t happening this time around.

But if you know where to look, Toronto can still act as a barometer of the industry landscape: its current crises, what’s ahead and the crazy gambles that just might turn Hollywood on its head. It’s just a matter of reading between the dotted lines.

First, there’s the biggest (relatively speaking) deal of TIFF 2016 thus far: Fox Searchlight’s purchase of the Jackie Kennedy biopic, Jackie. Directed by Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain (who also has another biopic, Neruda, playing the fest), the film stars Natalie Portman as the former first lady, following her in the days directly after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The drama made its world premiere in Venice, but after wild word-of-mouth buoyed Toronto screenings, Fox Searchlight jumped on U.S. rights for an undisclosed sum (trade reports peg the price in the eight-figure range).

Already, Fox Searchlight has slapped Jackie with a Dec. 9 release date – a prime launching pad for awards consideration, and perfect positioning for Portman to repeat her 2011 Oscar win for best actress in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (coincidentally, Aronofsky was once attached to direct Jackie). While the studio’s confidence in Jackie is all well and good, the purchase also offers clues as to the fate of another high-profile TIFF film: The Birth of a Nation.

Fox Searchlight also owns Nate Parker’s slave-revolt drama, after paying a record-breaking $17.5-million for it at Sundance. But given how FS is a smaller, art-house outfit, with not as much cash to spare as its corporate mother-ship, 20th Century Fox, it would be a shock if the company decided to push two films in the time-consuming and increasingly expensive Oscar race – meaning whereas The Birth of a Nation was once a surefire bet in the “for your consideration” sweepstakes, it may now be shuffled out in favour of the more critically adored, squeaky-clean Jackie.

Blame the persistent controversy hanging over Parker’s head (he was tried, and acquitted, of sexual assault when he was a student at Penn State), or blame a market reluctant to embrace the art and ignore the artist. You could even blame FS’s decision to put Parker front and centre at TIFF this past weekend – a marketing gamble that mostly went sideways, only serving to highlight how poorly the writer-director-star handles the press.

Either way, it appears that Jackie is the new crown jewel of FS’s 2016 slate, while Parker’s film may end up a historical footnote. (The sad irony that the film itself celebrates the forgotten legacy of slave-revolt leader Nat Turner cannot be ignored, either.) When you inevitably hear Portman’s name uttered in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre next February, and Parker’s entirely absent, you can trace that moment in time back to Toronto.

Away from the prestige-focused awards race, though, TIFF also offers a lesson in the global economic powers that are trying to change the very business of moviemaking. Early Tuesday night (or very late Monday night, depending on your definition), Anne Hathaway’s festival film Colossal was picked up by an unnamed Chinese buyer for an undisclosed sum (reportedly mid-seven figures). All that’s known about the purchaser is that it’s China-based, and will reveal itself in the upcoming weeks as part of a major announcement involving an undisclosed U.S. studio.

Like Colossal itself – a drama about an alcoholic (Hathaway) who shares a psychic connection to a giant monster wreaking havoc in Seoul (yes, really) – everything about the deal is curious, even bewildering. But, also like Colossal, once you peel back the gloss of easy intrigue, it’s mostly straightforward.

The deal is simply another indication that, despite concerns over its recent economic downturn, China is still a box-office force to be reckoned with, both inside and outside Beijing. In August, the country’s box office pushed itself back into growth after a headline-grabbing decline, and Chinese behemoths such asHuayi Brothers Media are continuing to pump millions into new ventures with Hollywood-based partners.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Colossal, with its unique blend of American (Hathaway, co-star Jason Sudeikis) and Asian elements (huge monsters, Pacific Rim setting), is used as some sort of litmus test – an experiment to see whether there’s such a thing as a truly global blockbuster.

Of course, the film business is in the midst of disruption and change and all the ugliness that goes with that. Like those damn Scotiabank escalators, the hopes and dreams of every TIFF deal could fall apart at a moment’s notice.

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