Inside Focus’ $30 Million Deal for Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers’

Outside a screening of Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto on Sunday, one attendee left feeling that he had seen the best movie playing at the festival, even though it wasn’t an official selection of TIFF, and almost no one knew the screening was happening.

There’s a good chance the hype was deserved. Within 24 hours of that screening, Focus Features closed a deal to acquire “The Holdovers” for a price tag in the $30 million range. It was not just the biggest deal out of Toronto, possibly ever for either the festival or for Focus Features, it also was just about the only deal of substance out of TIFF up until that point.

According to multiple individuals who spoke to TheWrap, representatives from virtually all the major studios and streamers were present at the screening, and producer and financier Miramax was delighted at the turnout, ultimately fielding interest from multiple parties before Focus very quickly won out in the auction.

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But why go so big on a movie that had no built-in buzz or audience feedback? And why would a traditional indie distributor pay beyond even what Apple did to acquire the Sundance darling and eventual Oscar Best Picture winner “CODA”? It’s an aggressive and risky play for Focus at a time when the theatrical landscape is uncertain for any independent film.

And staying theatrical was absolutely a key requirement for Miramax, one individual close to the project said. While the company met with the Amazons and Apples of the world, the individual said that the producers and Payne were “very” keen on giving the film a theatrical release. And though FilmNation was at one point involved last year to push international sales, “The Holdovers” came to market from CAA Media Finance with an eye toward a global theatrical deal.

The film landed with Focus, which as part of the deal acquired worldwide rights to “The Holdovers,” excluding Middle East territories, which are retained by Miramax and its parent company, the Qatar-based beIN Media. Focus will be planning a global theatrical rollout for the movie at some point in 2023.

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But while $30 million — plus marketing costs — is a hefty price for any indie film to recoup, an individual with knowledge of Focus’ thinking said the price was “fair” for the market. Baked into the studio’s economics wasn’t just how other Payne films have performed — his biggest hit, 2011’s “The Descendants” with George Clooney, grossed $177 million on a $20 million budget — but also the downstream revenue “The Holdovers” can produce once it makes its way through parent company Universal’s broader network, including eventually landing on its streaming service, Peacock.

While the film wasn’t acquired for both Peacock and Focus in the way that the Sundance film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” was, it’s likely that Focus wouldn’t have had the stomach to make the deal without the support of the larger Universal team.

Focus Features and Miramax had no comment for this article.

The good news is that early reactions to “The Holdovers” appear very strong. The comedy, set in 1970, follows Giamatti as a curmudgeonly, universally disliked teacher who finds himself stuck at his university over the course of the holidays along with a troublemaking student (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa) and the school’s cook (Da’vine Joy Randolph), who recently lost her son in Vietnam.

The individual close to the project described it as touching, funny and very emotional, blending comedy and drama in the way that “Sideways” or Payne’s other films have managed with ease. Not only does “The Holdovers” reunite Payne with his “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti, the film fits snugly into Payne’s larger repertoire, moving away from the high-concept social satire “Downsizing” and instead evoking Payne’s humanism and the frustrations about “life being bewildering.”

Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti (left) from 2004 (Searchlight Pictures)
Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti (left) from 2004 (Searchlight Pictures)

Trying to recapture the magic of “Sideways” will be key if Focus wants to succeed with the acquisition. The 2004 film grossed $110 million worldwide on a $16 million budget, and “The Descendants” did even better. But it’s been a long time since those successes. “Downsizing” in 2017 tanked with both critics and audiences and made only $55 million worldwide against a more bloated $68 million budget, and “Nebraska,” though made for a modest $12 million, managed a modest $28 million in 2013.

The budget on “The Holdovers,” the insider said, was in line with previous Payne films.

It’s worth noting that “The Holdovers” is the director’s first film since 2020, when he was accused of sexual misconduct by actress Rose McGowan, who said she was just 15 when Payne showed her a soft-core porn film. Payne later refuted the timeline of the accusation and said he couldn’t have crossed paths with her at the time she said the incident took place. He further denied that he had ever directed a film under a different name as she had alleged. But shottly after McGowan’s accusation surfaced, Payne dropped out of the Olivia Colman-led HBO series “Landscapers,” reportedly due to scheduling issues.

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Why didn’t “The Holdovers” play as an official selection of TIFF? The simple answer is that the film is not 100% finished. The version that screened for buyers in Toronto still requires some minor visual effects work, music cues and other timing issues to be smoothed out, and it also played with no end credits and a title sequence that’s still in progress.

Now, Focus has the luxury of taking time to build an awards and theatrical campaign around “The Holdovers,” waiting on a rollout until some point in 2023, whether that means a debut at Cannes, Venice or even next year’s TIFF. And with the film’s plot centered around Christmas, a holiday release wouldn’t be out of the question.

Whatever “The Holdovers” ends up being for Focus, it’s a win for Miramax, scoring a major deal at a time when the remainder of the TIFF market has crawled and when finding a movie that can make a real splash with theatrical audiences has never been more important.

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