Few films bring buzz from hungry buyers

BERLIN — The first official film market of the year, Berlin’s expanded European Film Market, boasted record attendance but sales were lukewarm, due to a lack of hot product.

Plenty of movies were bought and sold, but bid battles were rare and the event trundled through a week without snow or high drama.

“Berlin has proved itself a very healthy market for the right films,” says Summit Intl. topper David Garrett.

Since the AFM moved to the fall, U.S. sellers attending Berlin continue to increase. Some members of the Independent Film & Television Alliance talked of renting a building nearby to satisfy demand for more exhibition space.

Buyers were also there in number. With the exception of notable Australian no-shows Hoyts and Roadshow, more distribs from far-flung points, who in previous years might have avoided the anticipated chill and waited for Cannes, flew in to work their way through the mart.

Those that did make the trip were greeted with mild, gray weather and a patchy offering of finished films that required more effort to plow through.

“The market is so dense now, there is so much going on. It used to be that you could come to Berlin and simply see films,” says Ugo Sorrentino, head of Rio De Janeiro-based distrib Art Films.

Buyers soon discovered only limited offerings of new projects in search of financing or pre-sales. Early in the event, Mandate (“Drag Me to Hell”), Summit Entertainment (“Knowing”) and Fortissimo (Martin Scorsese’s untitled Bob Marley docu) unleashed crowd-pleasing projects for pre-sales or finance, and there were private, off-market screenings for Initial’s “Young Victoria,” Pathe’s “Summer Hours” and Fine Cut’s “The Chaser.”

Paramount Vantage, attending only its second market as seller, attracted heat for “Shutter Island.” But it was talking of the Cannes market as the real launchpad and only offered the forthcoming Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio pic in four territories. Focus Features and Lakeshore took two of the largest booths in the overflowing Martin Gropius Bau, but without any new product.

The three month Writers Guild strike appeared to have affected TV more than movie production, but the threat of a SAG strike caused buyers and sellers to be cautious about which pictures will be able to align scripts, talent and finance in time to wrap by the end of June.

“The second half of the year is still going to be slow,” says one U.S. producer.

A growing lack of certainty in identifying which films can connect with theatrical auds and falling DVD sales also caused anxiety. In some territories, including Germany, films without the potential of TV play were not getting picked up.

“The market has been very strong for the titles that people consider as standouts, but continues to be really tough for anything people perceive as small or difficult,” says Fortissimo Films co-chief Michael J. Werner.

“This has been a tough market for (sales to) major territories. Japan and France have been particularly difficult,” says Myriad Films prexy Kirk d’Amico. “These days, so many French companies have positions in English-language movies — just look at the slates of StudioCanal, Wild Bunch, Gaumont or Pathe — which they of course favor alongside their French movies, that it is getting really difficult to sell to them.”

With the country recently riding a wave of successful local titles, sales to Japan were widely predicted to be tough last week.

“The strike has not affected international, as far as we can see,” says Arthouse honcho David Koh. “But there is a problem that American films are not selling as well these days. The world has become slightly more real and diversified in its tastes.”

That may explain the strength of documentaries and to a lesser extent foreign-language films.

With the exception of Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which Summit sold to Miramax and much of the rest of the world, the festival offered little help to buyers. The main competition’s other standout film “There Will Be Blood” is a Miramax release in international territories and not available to indie buyers. Ed Meza, Ali Jaafar and Nick Holdsworth contributed to this report.

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