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How the business of TIFF 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.

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

Behind the scenes, distributors and studios met with sales agents and filmmakers. These meetings, as well as buzz from the festival can determine when, how, and sometimes if a film can one day be seen by a wider audience.

While high profile studio films like The Fablemans, The Woman King, and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery should all have fairly conventional releases in the coming weeks and months, what happens to some of the other more than 200 films in TIFF’s lineup now that the festival is over?

Some films may never find a wider audience, but others found deals to land on the big screen — although in many cases where, when, and for how long are still up in the air.

Huddles and hotel meetings

It isn’t just cinephiles in the audience at TIFF. Even at showings open to the public, deals could be percolating. 

“Distributors will go to a public screening of the film,” said Geoff MacNaughton, senior director of industry and theatrical programming at TIFF. “[They] will leave that screening, all get in their little huddles and talk about if it’s something that they really want to bid on and chase.”

Some films screen exclusively for buyers and industry professionals, like Door Mouse, a Canadian thriller about a comic book writer working in a nightclub who investigates the disappearances of a number of young women.

how the business of tiff affects when the rest of canada can see the films
Canadian thriller Door Mouse screened for potential buyers and industry professionals as part of TIFF’s Industry Selects program. (Highland Film Group)

“These kinds of screenings, [they’re] fun because it just makes sure that everybody’s paying attention,” said Todd Olsson, president of Highland Film Group, who are selling Door Mouse.

Changing landscape

MacNaughton says in the past there were more completed films looking for buyers at the festival. 

“Now, I think what the industry is doing more and more is buying content that is at an earlier stage of completion, kind of like a project package or script stage,” he said. 

In addition to the films on screen, TIFF provides an opportunity for the industry to meet and broker deals for projects that haven’t been made yet. One example of that phenomenon at this year’s festival is Dumb Money, May said, a yet-to-be-shot film about the GameStop stock saga that will star Seth Rogen, Paul Dano, and Pete Davidson.

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Laurie May is co-founder and co-president of Elevation Pictures. (Elevation Pictures)

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

She compares independent film financing to building a condominium. 

“You presell 60 per cent of the condo and then you go to the bank and borrow the other 40 per cent knowing that it’s a small gap that you have to cover,” she said. 

WATCH | The Woman King premiered at TIFF and is now playing across Canada: 

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The Woman King wowed at TIFF, now opening across Canada

4 days ago

Duration 5:37

The Woman King stars Viola Davis as Nanisca, a military general of the Agojie — the famous all-woman warrior band charged with protecting the kingdom of Dahomey in 19th-century West Africa.

Cancon challenges

It may be tough for Canadian films at TIFF to convince distributors they’re commercially worthy of being shown to a wider Canadian audience.

According to an April report from Motion Picture Association – Canada, Canadian films represented just 2.6 per cent of theatrical revenues in the Canadian English language market last year.

“Despite the large number of Canadian productions that are out there, theatrical audiences still flock to Hollywood films,” said Tom Alexander, director of theatrical distribution for Mongrel Media.

Director Ashley McKenzie makes films in their native Cape Breton Island, often using first-time actors and crew members who live in the community. She feels this local approach can make it harder to appeal to distributors.

McKenzie was at TIFF with Queens of the Qing Dynasty, a drama about a neurodiverse teen in a remote small town who’s been deemed unfit to live by herself after a suicide attempt. 

She feels part of the challenge is due to investors being hesitant to take a risk on films with unknown actors from emerging filmmakers, but she also feels there’s a geographic hurdle to finding distribution in an industry she describes as centralized around big urban centres, especially Toronto.

A young man and woman sit across from one another at a table.
Ashley McKenzie’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty was filmed in Cape Breton. McKenzie feels distribution can prove an especially difficult challenge to filmmakers who work in smaller communities with local, often less experienced cast and crew members. (Courtesy FIN – AIFF)

“I am aware of a lot of filmmakers making films in their communities like myself,” she said. “I’m hoping that maybe some more options become available … in getting some of those films seen and distributed.”

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

Buzz (or not)

Attention at TIFF can affect the release schedules for films, even if distributors already have the rights, said John Bain, head of distribution at levelFILM.

“If you get especially positive buzz, does that mean we should rush it out while it might have a lot of attention?” he said.

The opposite can be true for films that don’t generate attention.

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

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

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

“Certainly a lot of films and very good films will play. But for whatever reason, distribution companies may simply not be able to see the potential for audiences.”

Finding a wider audience

MacNaughton says TIFF’s Film Circuit program will bring festival films to more than 140 communities, starting back up this September after a multi-year hiatus. 

“We’re working closely with community partners across Canada to ensure that not only Toronto audiences are seeing these films, but audiences across Canada are seeing them,” he said.

Some of the Canadian films have domestic distribution lined up ahead of time, since it can be a common condition to unlock funding, although that doesn’t guarantee a wide release.

Mongrel Media is distributing I Like Movies, about a curmudgeonly teenager working in a video store in early 2000s Ontario. Alexander says the company looks to release their films theatrically whenever possible. 

“We are seeing that audiences are coming back to the theaters and we’re continuing to play films in theaters when we can,” he said. 

However he said that those releases tend to be limited, and focused on big urban centres, so it may be easier to see some of these films in theatres in Vancouver than Viking, Alta. 

Past examples

Last year’s program may provide a rough guide as to when Canadians might be able to watch some of this year’s Canadian TIFF selections.

Scarborough, which won the 2022 Canadian Screen Award for best picture, was distributed by levelFILM and had a theatrical release in February, before making its way to Crave this past summer.

Nightraiders, a dystopian film about a mother trying to rescue her daughter from a state run institution was named one of the TIFF’s top ten Canadian features last year. It released in more than It also made its way to Crave earlier this year, and opened in 80 theatres in October 2021, a record total for an Indigenous film.

WATCH| Scarbarough won the 2022 Canadian Screen Award for best picture: 

Learn to Swim, which was named on TIFF’s list of top ten Canadian features at last year’s festival and had a theatrical release this past March. It was recently made available in the U.S. on Netflix, and is available to rent or buy on various video on demand platforms in Canada.

While important, the film festival is one step, and not the final one on the long journey a film takes from inception to reaching a wider audience.

“Half of the films that are out there get made right. And then half of those half get into festivals and then a quarter of those half get distribution, right?” May said. 

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

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