Bazaar fills AFM void with brisk arthouse biz

BERLIN — The festival got stuck in second gear, but the market hit overdrive from the start and kept going right through to the checkered flag.

That was the story of the 55th Berlinale (Feb. 10-20), which made a historic shift on its axis from being a world-class festival with a nice little market on the side, to becoming a bustling bazaar that no indie seller or buyer can afford to miss.

For the first time, the Berlin market generated its own heat independent of the festival, with sales companies striking pre-sales on a slew of hot new scripts and promos, such as Lions Gate’s “Saw 2,” Capitol’s “The Mistress of Spices,” Summit’s “Keeping Mum,” Pathe’s “Breakfast on Pluto” and “Savage Grace” from Celluloid Dreams.

Distribs came in force from as far afield as Japan and Australia to find out whether Berlin’s European Film Market would really fill the void left by the American Film Market’s move to the fall. The answer, judging by the relentless pace of meetings and dealmaking across all territories, was a decisive yes.

“We didn’t just see the distributors who buy Berlin-type arthouse movies, we saw everyone,” said Capitol Films topper Jane Barclay. “Apart from the Europeans, there were quite a lot of key Latin Americans, all of the Japanese and a few of the other Asians too, the South Africans and the Australians.”

The theory of cutting back to a two-market year (Cannes in May and Santa Monica in November), which was the original rationale behind the AFM date switch, was swiftly forgotten.

“For production finance, you need a market in the first quarter to pre-sell films you plan to shoot in the summer, and Cannes is really too late,” said Martin Moszkowicz of Germany’s Constantin Film, which is prepping the $60 million Tom Tykwer pic “Perfume,” with pre-sales virtually completed via Summit.

Veteran Italian sales agent Adriana Chiesa, who was handling Italo competition entry “Smalltown, Italy,” commented, “There are so many more buyers, the screenings are packed. Next year’s move to a bigger space is going to consecrate the EFM as one of the world’s major film markets.”

For mainstream sales outfits such as Capitol, Summit, Pathe, Focus and Content, who took suites this year in the Grand Hyatt hotel because there was no room at the EFM’s cramped Debis building, the big decision will be whether to take stands next year when the EFM moves into spacious new digs five minutes down the road in the Martin Gropius Bau, an imposing 19th-century museum.

Presenting the new location, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and glass-covered atrium, fest director Dieter Kosslick said, “All film markets are usually in the worst spaces, with the worst air and the worst coffee shops. But we think to see good movies, you need an inspiring ambience.”

That’s part of the Berlinale’s pitch to maintain its focus on quality theatrical films. The EFM may be doubling in size, but space will still be limited. The subliminal message is clear — purveyors of straight-to-video schlock aren’t welcome here.

But if Berlin becomes the year’s third market after Cannes and the AFM, keeping the schlockmeisters out won’t be easy. Kosslick and EFM topper Beki Probst confabbed during this year’s fest with officials from IFTA (formerly AFMA, the org that reps indie sellers and runs the AFM) about how to manage next year’s expansion.

Most sellers were too busy even to go and inspect the new building, so questions remain unanswered about whether the new setup will suit their needs. Buyers expressed concern about the distance between the Gropius and the cinemas, but it’s a shorter walk than they face at Cannes or the AFM.

Not everyone is happy about Berlin’s transformation, although the dissenters were in the minority. Sammy Hadida of French distrib Metropolitan griped, “I don’t like this. I’m just buying from the people I would buy from anyway, but they all kept saying they would see me here, so I had to come.”

The Japanese grumbled that snow-covered Berlin is too cold, and the restaurants and shopping don’t compare with Milan, home to the defunct Mifed, which was killed off by the AFM’s move to November.

That didn’t stop them buying films, though. Indeed, acquisitions were competitive across all territories, with the U.K., Italy, Spain and Germany particularly active.

Thanks to the lack of great discoveries in the festival, U.S. buyers had the least to get excited about. But Tartan picked up North American rights to Shochiku’s samurai pic “The Hidden Blade,” and Stateside deals reportedly are imminent on market titles including “Breakfast on Pluto” and Arclight’s Dougray Scott starrer “Perfect Creatures.”

(Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.)

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