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Every September, hundreds of films from around the world come to the Toronto International Film Festival – but not every movie is glimpsed by ticket holders. Given that TIFF attracts an untold number of sales agents and studio and distribution executives to a few square blocks of downtown for one concentrated stretch of time, Toronto’s festival has become home to a burgeoning (if unofficial) market – a frenzied space of private screenings and back-room negotiations in which all manner of deal-making goes down.

Last year, the hottest title out of TIFF wasn’t Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans or Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, but Alexander Payne’s dramedy The Holdovers, which was privately screened for select buyers before being snapped up for Focus Features (a division of Universal Pictures) for a record US$30-million. In a full-circle moment, the Paul Giamatti-starring film will have its international premiere at TIFF next week.

This year, hopes are high that TIFF can spur that much more business as festival organizers take cautious but meaningful steps toward establishing an official marketplace along the lines of the European Film Market, which runs parallel to the Berlin Film Festival, or the Marché du Film at Cannes. The goal: to be for the screen sector what the Frankfurt Book Fair is for publishing.

“Year by year, we’ve been setting a bigger table and welcoming more people to dinner,” TIFF chief executive officer Cameron Bailey said a week before the 48th festival kicks off Thursday. “We can play a significant role for business to happen. We’d like to grow that and we’ve been leaning into it.”

Buyers will certainly have plenty to choose from this year – not only the 100 or so private screenings of ready-to-buy films that TIFF is helping co-ordinate with sales and promotional agents (including titles playing in the curated TIFF Industry Selects sidebar), but many of the movies premiering at the festival itself.

Whether by quirk or design, a large number of TIFF’s official 200-plus selections this edition are sales or “acquisitions” titles – movies made by independent producers that are arriving without distributors attached, all eager to be snapped up by the A24s or Netflixes of the world.

Highlights include the Ian McKellen-starring drama The Critic; the two-hander New York cab-ride drama Daddio starring Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson; Viggo Mortensen’s Western The Dead Don’t Hurt; the Kate Winslet-led war photographer biopic Lee co-starring Andy Samberg in a rare dramatic role; Richard Linklater’s dark-comedy Hit Man starring Top Gun: Maverick breakout Glen Powell; and the experimental assassin thriller Aggro Dr1ft from provocateur Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), which arrives in Toronto after sparking divisive reaction and walkouts at the Venice Film Festival last week.

On one hand, this is the perfect year for acquisition titles to stand out at TIFF. Many productions have secured interim agreements from the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, allowing the stars of such titles to participate in festival publicity despite the actors’ strike. This means a smaller sales title such as Memory, starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, can have its talent walk the red carpet, giving it an edge of promotional buzz over larger but this year star-less productions from the major studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP, which is currently at odds with SAG-AFTRA.

On the other hand, the strike has introduced a chilling effect in the deal-making air. According to SAG-AFTRA, any buyers of sales titles must agree to new contract terms from the union – including a new pillar of revenue for actors based on how a film performs on a streaming service. While any deal made as the strike carries on will be superseded by or merged with whatever agreement that SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP eventually come to terms on, the tenuous nature of the situation has muted sales excitement – especially for the big streamers such as Netflix and Apple TV+, which have been outspending traditional studios and distributors over the past few years on the fest circuit.

TIFF’s Bailey, though, brushes off such concern.

“There has been a lot of incomplete information floating around about buyers and the interim agreements, but we don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “I think there’s a timing thing where sales completed during our festival, those films might be delayed for distribution until the strike is resolved. But we have a bigger and brighter lineup of sales titles than we’ve had in recent years, and we think there’s a service we can provide in growing the ability for buyers to see those films.”

Bailey and TIFF’s chief programming officer, Anita Lee, point out that, in North America, there is no equivalent market to the ones in Berlin and Cannes, with the American Film Market held later in the year in Santa Monica, Calif., serving a different function.

“We’ve been having these conversations with the sales community and the sense is that TIFF is an important industry hub not only for Canada but around the world, and there’s real interest in us establishing a formal market,” said Lee. “It would require a big investment and it won’t happen tomorrow, but the potential is quite significant.”

To that end, TIFF has been reaching out to every level of the Canadian government for financial support.

“The national trade benefits are huge,” said Bailey, noting that Lee and Geoff Macnaughton, TIFF’s senior director of industry and theatrical programming, are leading the market charge. “The more we can facilitate it, the more it will grow.”

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