Before cameras ever start rolling on a RadicalMedia movie, staffers are already busy strategizing about where it should eventually premiere. The company, which boasts “The Fog of War” and “Summer of Soul” among its many credits, routinely consults an exhaustive chart that lays out the deadlines to submit a movie to major festivals like Cannes, Sundance and Toronto.
“There’s no guarantee that you’ll get invited, but it’s important to have a plan,” says Jon Kamen, CEO of RadicalMedia. “Each festival has their own unique personality that makes it the perfect fit for certain kinds of work.”
In the case of RadicalMedia’s “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” a documentary that follows the pop star behind “Old Town Road” on his first global tour, that ideal launching spot was always the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Nas X has performed in the city, and he has a huge fanbase there,” says Kamen. “We knew that people who love his music would turn out, so we weren’t going to have an audience of typical film festival attendees. It will show how passionate people are about him.”
A lively premiere of “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” filled with younger music lovers won’t be the only thing that’s distinctive about this edition of the Toronto Film Festival. With actors and writers on strike, most movie stars won’t be making the trek across the border when the celebration of movies kicks off on Sept. 7. That means that films such as Netflix’s “Nyad,” featuring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, or Searchlight’s “Quiz Lady” with Awkwafina and Sandra Oh, or Sony’s “Dumb Money,” a comedy about the stock market that boasts an ensemble that includes Seth Rogen and Pete Davidson, will be unveiled without their stars.
“It’s going to make for a dampened sense of festivity at the festival,” notes Kamen.
That’s not to say that the city will be devoid of A-listers. Some films were produced outside the studio system with financing from a range of backers or made by independent companies such as Neon and A24 that aren’t involved in the labor standoff. And while producers and publicists have privately groused that the actors’ guild has been slow to grant waivers allowing stars to promote their films at festivals — making travel cumbersome and more expensive — many projects are getting dispensations. Ethan Hawke’s “Wildcat,” a drama that features his daughter Maya Hawke as Flannery O’Connor, and Michael Keaton’s thriller “Knox Goes Away,” are among films cleared by the union for promotional activity.
Despite those exceptions, there’s no escaping the fact that the dual strikes mean that very little is getting made throughout most of Hollywood. That could be a good thing for agents hoping to land big deals for the finished films they are looking to sell to studios in need of something to put in theaters or streamers desperate for new content.
“It could be a great atmosphere for sellers because of the pure math of things,” says John Sloss, the head of Cinetic Media, a management and sales company. “Since very little has been in production since June, any completed movies should be disproportionately valuable.”
But other industry players aren’t so sure. They note that the strikes have taken a devastating financial toll on a business that hasn’t recovered from the slowdown in production created by COVID. “There’s too much insecurity right now,” says Delphine Perrier, the chief operating officer of the Highland Film Group, a sales and production company. “It’s not clear that people are going to be as aggressive. It’s a very challenging time for the business.”
On paper, many movies that are looking for distribution boast showy casts that could make them commercially viable. Some of the biggest films hoping to entice buyers include “Hit Man,” a noir-ish thriller from Richard Linklater that features a showy turn from Glen Powell; “Lee,” an awards-bait drama about war photographer Lee Miller that stars Kate Winslet; “In Restless Dreams,” Alex Gibney’s look at the life of music legend Paul Simon; and “Les Indésirables,” a politically charged examination of modern Paris from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ladj Ly.
“My impression is that, in terms of the market for films, this is one of the most robust Toronto’s we’ve seen in some time,” says Scott Shooman, head of film at AMC Networks. “That’s both in terms of the quantity of projects and the fact that are a lot of interesting directors with movies that are available.”
Not everyone is touching down in Canada looking to buy movies. Many people are venturing north in hopes of kicking off awards-season runs that will land them in the thick of the Oscar race. After all, it’s the festival that turbo-charged the campaigns of eventual best picture victors such as “Green Book” and “12 Years a Slave.” This year’s crop of contenders, such as the civil rights drama “Rustin” or the Alexander Payne dramedy “The Holdovers,” are betting that history repeats itself.
But awards alone aren’t enough to guarantee financial success. Before the labor tensions upended Toronto and other fall festivals, some studio executives had privately questioned the value of shelling out for a premiere at one of these events. After all, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to ferry and house talent, to say nothing of the money that it takes to put on a big premiere afterparty. That no longer seems like such a great investment given that the kind of adult-oriented dramas that usually populate these festivals are struggling at the box office. Last year, “The Fabelmans” and “Women Talking” earned rapturous receptions at Toronto and became leading Oscar players. But both films failed to turn a profit during their theatrical releases, earning a lackluster $45.6 million and $9 million, respectively.
Despite those challenges, many longtime indie players insist that opening a film in this kind of setting generates an invaluable amount of buzz and excitement around a movie.
“It creates some noise and gives it a pedigree,” says Tom Bernard, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. He says he often takes films to Toronto because it “has an incredibly receptive audience who really react to every nuance of a film.”
One studio executive’s discerning crowd is another person’s all-too forgiving moviegoer. Some festivals, such as Cannes, relish delivering a frosty reception to films. But Toronto, where standing ovations are more popular than poutine, tends to be a welcoming environment. Booing and mass walkouts are almost unheard of.
For many of the filmmakers behind these projects, having a world premiere in Toronto marks the culmination of an uphill battle to will a passion project into existence, as well as the beginning of another phase, in which they see if their art will be embraced. Take D.W. Waterson, a non-binary D.J. and web series creator making their feature film directing debut with “Backspot,” a look at professional cheerleaders that they developed over five years. The independently financed production was shot on a limited budget over a whirlwind 17 days throughout the suburbs of Toronto. Those regional ties made Waterson eager to debut the movie in the city. But as the premiere approaches, the director is feeling a mixture of emotions.
“On one side, I’ve got a lot of nerves and then on the other there’s tremendous adrenaline,” Waterson says. “I put so much of myself into this film, so I’m feeling vulnerable about sharing it. But I’m also looking forward to sitting back and seeing if an audience responds to the high-intensity movie we made.”