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Fewer film executives came to Toronto for this year’s festival, leading to a cooler market for distribution deals.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

The market for distribution deals at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was cool, with fewer film executives coming to town for the event than usual, opting instead to do business virtually.

For some TIFF attendees, this year’s hybrid-model festival lacked the same industry buzz it had in recent editions before the pandemic, when it was easy for executives to gauge audience reaction to a title, and feel the heat to beat out other potential buyers sitting with them in the theatre.

“I think a lot of people stayed away from the travel part, and a lot of people engaged with TIFF online,” said Frances Anne Solomon, a Toronto-based filmmaker and long-time festivalgoer. “The buyers really played it safe.”

The Globe and Mail asked 14 film distributors – a combination of traditional studios and streaming players – if they had made any acquisitions at this year’s festival; 12 did not respond to a request for comment. On Thursday, Sony said it had not yet made any deals; on Friday, Netflix stated that it didn’t “have anything to share.”

But the market wasn’t completely dry. On the first day of the festival, Toronto-based levelFILM picked up Canadian rights to Scarborough, named after Toronto’s diverse east end suburb, the runner-up for the festival’s People’s Choice Award. U.S. distributor Blue Fox Entertainment acquired North American rights to Streamline, a picture about a teen swimmer with Olympic hopes. The Hollywood trade press reported a small handful of other deals, but also noted the subdued market.

“Major market packages are thin on the ground,” Screen Daily editor Jeremy Kay wrote midway through the festival.

Buying opportunities may have been limited due to the festival’s reduced lineup – less than 200 this year compared to more than 300 in 2019, while the mostly virtual 2020 event only had around 50 feature films – and many films having already secured major distribution deals. Big-budget films such as festival opener Dear Evan Hansen and Dune had found partners already. U.S. studio NEON nabbed North American rights to festival closer One Second in July.

Laurie May, the co-president of Toronto-based Elevation Pictures, said her company hadn’t bought any rights in what she called “a quieter market,” but two of its nine films at the festival, Charlotte and The Survivor, had received interest from buyers. Its seven other movies entered the festival with North American distribution deals in place.

“I don’t think there were many sales titles at this market, and a lot of films that played, like some of ours, already had distributions,” she said.

“It was not as fulsome as a normal festival, but there were certainly buyers hovering around and then sending digital links to their colleagues as well,” she added, noting that she had seen executives from Amazon and Sony in the city. A smaller industry crowd, she said, can stunt excitement around a title.

“You definitely lose something without having that [group] together,” she said. “‘Did you see this? Did you see that?’ You can sort of feel, in a screening, the buyers stirring and some of them running out and frantically being on their phone.”

Ms. May said the festival – which was almost exclusively virtual last year – placed less emphasis on making the event an in-person experience than others on the circuit.

“With total respect, the arts communities and the governments worked a little bit more in tandem so that Cannes and Telluride and Venice could be physical festivals without a digital component.”

Many filmmakers prefer that prospective buyers watch their work on the big screen for aesthetic purposes, and to avoid piracy risks. Early into the festival, two Netflix movies leaked online after being uploaded to TIFF’s digital screening library.

Watching from home, though, does give executives the same vantage point of their audiences, who increasingly use streaming platforms to watch TV and film in their living rooms, eschewing the cinema. Buyers are being mindful of what films play best at home.

“Horror films might not necessarily work as well in the [streaming] model because horror is something that people really want experience in the theatre together,” Ms. May said, noting that Elevation’s action-packed thrillers have performed better than its horror titles on streaming services.

Ms. Solomon, who had her most recent film, Hero, picked up by the likes of Amazon Prime and Showtime, said a flurry of streaming players competing with traditional studios has transformed the distribution market.

“Except for that premium content that is picked up first at festivals through a bidding war … the prices being paid for content, because a lot of it is migrating online now, is across the board lower than what might have been offered in the past for theatric [rights], because I think people don’t know yet how much money is really available through the streaming platforms.”

She said cheaper distribution deals don’t necessarily equate to lower revenues for filmmakers.

“There are many online outlets that are kicking up everywhere, targeting absolutely every new market you can think of,” she said. “It’s really [about] spreading your content across multiple platforms and then you have the opportunity of over time making money.”

For Ms. Solomon, there is a silver lining to having fewer executives watching the silver screen. This year’s TIFF, she said, really does feel like The People’s Festival. For years, attendees have suggested that an event once known for its accessibility to the average consumer has become increasingly industry-focused.

“It’s almost like it’s gone back to the good old days of TIFF when the festival belonged to the audience, you know? People are talking about the films that they saw and what they like and how much they enjoy them and it’s kind of a connoisseur’s dream rather than a buyer’s kind of market.”

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