How TIFF’s business affects when the rest of Canada can see the films

Amid the sold-out movie premieres and star-studded red carpets, there was another side of the Toronto International Film Festival unfolding in places like the Soho Metropolitan Hotel on Wellington Street.

“Each hotel room has a different sales agent,” said Laurie May, co-president of Elevation Pictures and member of the TIFF board of directors.

Behind the scenes, distributors and studios met sales agents and filmmakers. These encounters, as well as the buzz of the festival, can determine when, how and sometimes if a film can ever be seen by a wider audience.

While high-profile studio films such as The fables, the king of women, and Glass Onion: A Knife Mystery should all have fairly conventional releases in the coming weeks and months, what will happen to some of the other 200-plus films in TIFF’s lineup now that the festival is over?

Some movies may never find wider audiences, but others found deals to land on the big screen — though in many cases where, when, and how long is still on the air.

Huddles and hotel meetings

It’s not just cinephiles in the audience at TIFF. Even at screenings that are open to the public, deals can trickle down.

“Distributors will attend a public screening of the film,” said Geoff MacNaughton, senior director of industry and theatrical programming at TIFF. “[They] will leave the screening, all get into their little groups and talk about if it’s something they’re really willing to bid and chase.”

Some films are screened exclusively for buyers and industry professionals, such as door mousea Canadian thriller about a comic book writer who works in a nightclub and investigates the disappearances of several young women.

Canadian thriller Door Mouse screened to potential buyers and industry professionals as part of TIFF’s Industry Selects program. (Highland Film Group)

“Shows like this, [they’re] nice because it makes sure everyone is paying attention,” said Todd Olsson, president of international sales at Highland Film Group, who Door Mouse.

Changing landscape

MacNaughton says more completed films have been looking for buyers at the festival in the past.

“Now I think the industry is buying more and more content that is in an earlier stage of completion, some sort of project package or script phase,” he said.

In addition to the films on screen, TIFF offers the industry the opportunity to meet and make deals on projects that have not yet been made. An example of that phenomenon at this year’s festival is: stupid money, May said, a movie yet to be shot about the GameStop stock saga starring Seth Rogen, Paul Dano and Pete Davidson.

Laurie May is co-founder and co-chair of Elevation Pictures. (Height Photos)

According to May, Elevation’s investor and partner Black Bear Pictures had plans to sell the international rights to the film to various distributors in Soho.

She compares independent film financing to building a condominium.

“You sell 60 percent of the apartment and then you go to the bank and borrow the other 40 percent, knowing it’s a small gap to bridge,” she said.

VIEW | The woman king premiered at TIFF and now playing across Canada:

The Woman King impressed at TIFF, now open across Canada

In The Woman King, Viola Davis plays Nanisca, a military general of the Agojie – the famed all-female warrior gang charged with protecting the kingdom of Dahomey in 19th-century West Africa.

canon challenges

It can be difficult for Canadian films at TIFF to convince distributors that they are commercially worth showing to a wider Canadian audience.

According to an April report from Motion Picture Association – Canada, Canadian films accounted for just 2.6 percent of theatrical revenues in the Canadian-English-language market last year.

“Despite the sheer number of Canadian productions out there, theater audiences still flock to Hollywood movies,” said Tom Alexander, director of theater distribution for Mongrel Media.

Director Ashley McKenzie makes films in their native Cape Breton Island, often using new actors and crew members living in the community. She thinks this local approach could make it more difficult to reach distributors.

McKenzie was at TIFF with Queens of the Qing Dynasty, a drama about a neurodiverse teenager in a remote town who is deemed unfit to live on his own after a suicide attempt.

She believes that part of the challenge is due to investors’ hesitancy to take risks for films starring unknown actors from emerging filmmakers, but she also believes that there is a geographic hurdle to finding distribution in a industry that she describes as centralized around major urban centers, especially Toronto.

A young man and woman sit opposite each other at a table.
Ashley McKenzie’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty was filmed in Cape Breton. McKenzie believes distribution can be a particularly difficult challenge for filmmakers who work in smaller communities with local, often less experienced cast and crew members. (Courtesy of FIN – AIFF)

“I know a lot of filmmakers who make films in their communities like myself,” she said. “I’m hoping maybe some more options will become available… to get some of those movies seen and distributed.”

Heading into the festival, McKenzie was looking for a distributor for: Queens of the Qing Dynasty and came to an agreement with Toronto-based distribution company MDFF, which could lead to a theatrical release in late 2022 or early 2023. She also has a pre-sale licensing deal with CBC movies that will eventually provide a landing spot for the film.

Buzz (or not)

TIFF coverage can affect movie release schedules, even if distributors already own the rights, said John Bain, head of distribution at levelFILM.

“If you’re getting mostly positive buzz, does that mean we have to rush it when it might have a lot of attention?” he said.

The opposite can be true for movies that don’t attract attention.

“It takes a long time to get a distribution deal if a movie doesn’t get that critical buzz out of the festival,” MacNaughton said.

Geoff Macnaughton is the senior director of industry and theater programming at TIFF. (George Pimentel/TIFF)

Some of the films at the festival may never get distribution, says Alexander.

“There’s definitely going to be a lot of movies and really good movies going on. But for whatever reason, distribution companies just can’t see the potential for the public.”

Finding a wider audience

MacNaughton says TIFF’s Film Circuit program will bring festival films to more than 140 communities, and will resume in September after a multi-year hiatus.

“We are working closely with community partners across Canada to ensure that not only audiences in Toronto see these films, but audiences across Canada as well,” he said.

Some of the Canadian films have domestic distribution in advance, as it can be a common condition to clear funding, although that doesn’t guarantee a wide release.

Mongrel Media distributes i like movies, about a sober teenager who worked in a video store in Ontario in the early 2000s. Alexander says the company aims to release their films in theaters whenever possible.

“We’re seeing audiences come back to the theaters and we’ll continue to play movies in the theaters whenever we can,” he said.

However, he said those releases tend to be limited and aimed at major metropolitan centers, so it might be easier to see some of these movies in theaters in Vancouver than Viking, Alta.

Examples from the past

Last year’s schedule can give a rough indication of when Canadians could watch some of this year’s Canadian TIFF selections.

Scarboroughwhich won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Picture in 2022, was distributed by levelFILM and released in theaters in February, before making its way to Crave last summer.

night robbers, a dystopian film about a mother trying to rescue her daughter from a state-run institution was named one of the TIFF’s ten best Canadian feature films last year. It came out in more than a year earlier this year. It also made its way to Crave, opening in 80 theaters in October 2021, a record total for a native film.

VIEW| Scarbarough won the 2022 Canadian Screen Award for Best Picture:

Learning to swim, which was on the TIFF list of top ten Canadian feature films at last year’s festival and was released in theaters last March. It was recently made available in the US on Netflix and is available to rent or buy on several video-on-demand platforms in Canada.

While important, the film festival is one step, and not the last, in a film’s long journey from its inception to reaching a wider audience.

“Half of the movies out there are made well. And then half of that half goes to festivals and then a quarter of that half gets distributed, right?” said May.

“It’s a long road…but when you get on that path and unwrap that road well, it’s a beautiful thing.”

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