Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) starts this week and I will be there for almost the entire festival where I anticipate seeing 45-50 films before I depart. TIFF is not a film festival; it is a giant marathon that is almost beyond comprehension. If you believe that more is better, then this is the place to be. Think of TIFF as an 11 course film meal anchored by spam on steroids!

photo by chensiyuan

photo credit chensiyuan

Last year’s festival had 289 features (More than Sundance and SXSW combined!). Of these films, just over ½ (146) were world premieres. Less than 60% of total films at the festival, as well as fewer than 60% of world premieres, have managed to secure US distribution as of this writing. It’s important to note that the films at the fest came from 72 different countries and certain locales (USA, Israel) fared much better than others (All of Africa). Given that this is a major international festival, several films were able to secure international territories even if US distribution proved elusive.

Part of what makes the festival so large is the presence of studio films that take up a lot of the press, along with several North American Premieres from Cannes (36), Venice (16), and Locarno (9). Combined these films make up over 20% of the festival. 41 films or a little over 14% from the 2012 festival grossed over $1,000,000 theatrically in the States. While the number of films in total is quite impressive, the percentage puts it right in line with last year’s Sundance crop.  Of these films, ½ a dozen were studio releases and really don’t belong in the total. Another ½ dozen premiered at Cannes, Berlin, or Sundance.

The world premieres fared slightly better with 16% surpassing the same benchmark.  But if the studio films were removed from the equation, they drop to 13%, and of those, slightly more than half came to the fest with distribution attached.

So, why all the boring and headache inducing number? I think that with its start of the Oscar campaign season and studio gems, the festival often gets a distorted reputation. While it’s a great place to be if you’re a star driven vehicle, the reality is that there is an entire Sundance film festival worth of films that have yet to get distribution in the States!

The festival has a much larger international presence and many of these films have since been released in upwards of two dozen countries, even with the largest film market never coming into play. While the vast majority of these films are foreign and many are from countries that don’t have sizable diaspora populations in the States, several English language films still are struggling to find a way to release. “Detroit Unleaded” is the perfect example. It’s one of the few American films to be left behind, even though it won an award at the festival. Of course with over 4,000 submissions, the odds are still stacked against you getting into the people’s festival.

I want to talk about the two real problems of TIFF.  One is easily fixable and the other is not.

First, nobody at TIFF is thinking outside the box when it comes to distribution. Almost all of the films were traditional acquisitions (“Much Ado About Nothing”) or self-funded DIY vanity projects (Snoop Dogg’s “Reincarnated”). Percentage wise, more films from Tribeca and SXSW will see the light of the day because they had a plan B or C. They were open to DIY or non-theatrical distribution. For everyone who is going to TIFF, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE don’t wait for that giant offer to come, because unless your film stars Ryan Gosling or has been deemed Oscar bait, the major payoff isn’t going to happen. Similarly, the festival is in September and there are no major US festivals till January. So you should already have your US premiere strategy thought out to help compensate for the months and months where you will not be able to generate press.

The other problem is simply the gluttony of films competing for attention. TIFF is simply not going to show fewer films. I wish they would consider it, so that movies playing can get more attention, or just cut all but one or two studio films from their roster. Since the gluttony of choices gives them major revenue and prestige, that is unlikely to happen. If you’re going to TIFF, this means you MUST have a stellar publicist and be ready to talk to anybody and everybody that you can. Promote the hell out of your film. Without fail, almost all the American non-star driven indies that go are too slow to set up their social media operation. Toronto is only a small body of water away from the States and I encourage you to let the world know early and often about your film.

I personally LOVE TIFF. Last year I saw so many incredible films there, and I’m not just talking about Oscar darling “Argo”.  There were so many mind-blowingly wonderful films I stumbled upon, some of which have distribution and one film that hasn’t even screened in the States yet.

I look forward to discovering more of the hidden gems this year at the festival and am happy to meet with any filmmakers to discuss how to connect their wondrous visions with audiences around the world.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 will look at how specific films performed

September 3rd, 2013

Posted In: Film Festivals, International Sales

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