Dozens of movies will hit the fall film festivals without domestic distribution, and some non-AMPTP buyers could seize the opportunity.
“This was the year we were supposed to be going back to movie theaters.” So said producer Marty Katz during a recent interview with IndieWire in advance of the start of the fall festival season. (Katz’s latest film, “Backspot,” is a low-budget feature premiering in TIFF’s Discovery section.) And yet, for the third year in a row, there’s something else keeping things from being business as usual.
That, of course, is the dual strike, which means that dozens of movies premiering at the upcoming fall festivals — including Toronto, Venice, or Telluride — will be without stars on the red carpet or doing the usual promotional push. And while that strike rule is designed to hurt the studios looking to launch their awards titles for the year — and remind them of the necessity of stars to promote their films — smaller projects on the market without a home will inevitably take a hit too.
It’s a sacrifice indie producers like Katz are willing to make, and it hasn’t deterred them either. “I think there was a great enthusiasm for the festival before the strike. I think that continues. It would be wrong not to acknowledge that it’s put a bit of a pall over the enthusiasm for how much business we might get done,” Katz said. “I still think that there’s a great hunger as people emerge around the world from the years in pandemic for cinema as entertainment and art, and I think there will be brisk business to be done. That’s my sense. I’ve certainly been set upon by sales agents from around the world looking for products and [who] are enthusiastic about having those meetings.”
That’s because, unlike during the early days of the COVID pandemic, not everyone is staying home. TIFF is no longer screening movies virtually. Publicity is great, but many producers and sales agents believe that the press junkets and red carpets only do so much when it comes to whether their films land a buyer. And while some smaller sales agents or distributors may wait for AFM in a few months, most teams are traveling in full force with the intent to watch and acquire, as there’s nothing in the WGA or SAG-AFTRA’s strike rules that will prevent distributors from watching movies or — perhaps discreetly — beginning negotiations for them.
A “Lighter” Market
Whether anything actually closes in the next couple weeks is a different story. Agents IndieWire spoke with feel good about the quality of the films and expect the strikes could generate more business for distributors in need of product. But one agent who would normally be bullish about these sorts of things said sellers will be approaching the market delicately and with respect, avoiding any quick announcements to the press that could look bad for their clients or disrupt the guilds’ negotiations.
To that end, producers characterized the upcoming market at the fall festivals to be “quiet,” “lighter,” or “in flux” compared to past years. But several who spoke to IndieWire agreed that without the distraction of big stars, the door is open for more independent films to get some attention — and they’ll take it.
By our count, nearly 80 movies playing at the fall festivals are coming in without North American distribution, many with global rights available. CAA alone is repping or co-repping over 30 films. Some agencies are bringing market titles that aren’t official TIFF selections, while others are leftovers from earlier in the year that could now pick up steam.
TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey has gone out of his way to spotlight smaller movies this year at a time when the obvious awards plays are pulling back. But one studio specialty distribution distribution chief says it hasn’t been easy getting films into TIFF if they’ve been in any other festival. They’ve prioritized world premieres or movies for sale, and the exec feels there’s a chance the quality has suffered.
“There’s a lot for sale,” the distribution chief said. “I don’t know if there’s a jewel under a rock. We will see out of the festival what the market is. It’s impossible to make money theatrically with a foreign-language feature unless it wins a big prize like the Palme d’Or or is a name director.”
The Interim Agreement Question
Working in their favor is some of these movies also now have the benefit of the interim agreements, and many more titles are expected to have signed their own agreements with the guild by their premiere dates. SAG-AFTRA last Thursday gave the green light to such titles, encouraging members whose productions had signed the interim agreement to openly attend and promote on behalf of their movies.
That’s not a free pass for those studio films that remain struck, and not every movie premiering will ultimately qualify, especially because of the guild’s newer rule that WGA-covered movies produced in the U.S. aren’t eligible.
For those movies and others, the producers behind them are watching minute-by-minute and making contingency plans on the fly. Even those with interim agreements — which for market titles so far includes films like Ethan Hawke’s “Wildcat,” the Dakota Johnson film “Daddio,” and Luc Besson’s “DogMan” — are question marks. Others that have actors-turned-directors like Patricia Arquette for “Gonzo Girl,” Anna Kendrick for “Woman of the Hour,” and Michael Keaton for “Knox Goes Away,” are grappling with similar questions about whether they can appear as directors and not ruffle any feathers.
One way or another, those interim agreements will have an impact on the market. Distributors that acquire a movie that have signed will have to abide by the terms of the interim agreement, which could scare off AMPTP-affiliated buyers. At least one agent told us the major streamers or even the prestige distributors with studio ties won’t touch anything with an interim agreement, but they’ll have no qualms buying something that doesn’t. Others didn’t go that far and said a studio might still buy or negotiate for a movie, it just won’t be released or platformed until after the strike is over.
“We’re all here to figure out how to link arms and get these films into the world the right way,” an agent said. “There are plenty of buyers that aren’t part of the AMPTP that are looking for things that they can exploit and distribute, and we’re excited to talk to them too.”
Watch out for the indie shingles without AMPTP ties like A24, Neon, Bleecker Street, and others. While they don’t always buy in batches, these distributors have all been affected by shifting production schedules and release dates because of the strikes just like everyone else, and that leaves some with real holes in their slates in Q2-Q3 2024 or even as early as this winter.
“We’ve already had lots of conversations with agents. Our whole team will be in town. So we think there’s a terrific opportunity with everything going on in the world to try to elevate our game,” said Berry Meyerowitz, who co-runs Quiver Distribution and is bringing the Holocaust film “Irena’s Vow” to TIFF. “We’re all trying to be cautious, but at the same time, we all want to grow our business.”
The Documentary Side
Surely that boon for indie films will also have an impact on the documentaries too, right? Not so fast.
Jon Kamen, CEO of RadicalMedia, which produced “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” wonders how much of a robust market anyone can really expect for docs given how many sat on the shelf after Sundance, Tribeca, and Cannes. Kamen produced the largest sale for a doc in the history of Sundance with “Summer of Soul,” but those days are long gone, as he says massive changes at CNN Films, Showtime, and Netflix has had a “profound impact” on the unscripted space. And none of that has anything to do with the strike.
“There’s been a lot of unsold inventory out there. The disruption that’s taking place in the overall landscape has not only been the strike but the consolidation of all of these streamers and all of these things they are undergoing in their desire to cut costs or to change their strategies,” Kamen said. “If you talk to any producer in my position or the sales agents, it’s been a slog selling content right now because the buyers are under a lot of pressure.”
Still, Kamen admits there are “a lot of holes” in many distributor slates, and non-fiction movies certainly aren’t off the table. It’s just a question of what sells.
“The doc marketplace, honestly in the last 18 months, has taken a real hit, and of course everyone’s wondering what the impact of these strikes will be on the marketplace, but the jury honestly is still very much out,” Kathleen Lingo, the editorial director for The New York Times Film and TV who is bringing the Louis C.K. doc “Sorry/Not Sorry” to TIFF. “All the streamers who were over the last few years willing to write 6-figure checks, in some cases just based on a deck, that’s not happening much anymore. I do not get a read from the buyers I’m talking to that’s going to change any time soon because of the strike.”
One rival non-fiction producer with his own doc at TIFF tells us he likes the odds for “Long Live Montero” to sell out of the festivals and little else. All the buyers in the COVID years overcommitted, he says, and now buyers are looking only for true crime and more biographical docs that have guaranteed PR built in. The strikes haven’t meant that buyers suddenly have enormous budgets freed up for non-fiction. And even if your movie is good, it’ll still be a challenge to find it a platform.
An executive with a movie at TIFF fears that with such a surge of movies available on the market, the same market correction that has come for documentaries could be coming to the narrative indies.
But while there’s no such thing as a “normal” fall festival season, sources say there’s a lot of “noise” this year, with plans changing by the minute and no one really certain what the appetite will be. But one producer with a movie at TIFF says that no matter what, indie folks are always “resilient.”
“You never really know. You don’t know more than ever going into this festival, but we’re not being taken down by this,” the producer said. “We’re still going to the festival really proud of the film we made, feeling really excited for people to see it, and what will happen, will happen.”
Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.