Event blossoms as project launch pad

Berlin has come of age as a sales market, if the way the business is now being conducted is any indicator.

Major U.S. sales companies are learning to use the German capital as a launch pad for selected new projects in the way they do the Cannes festival and the American Film Market. That means fleets of executives, exclusive buyer screenings and swanky hotel suites. Indeed, if it weren’t for the ongoing writers strike and threat of an actors strike in June, Berlin’s progress toward commerciality might have been more pronounced.

“Business may be somewhat muted because of the effect of the two strikes,” said Ariel Veneziano, prexy of Icon Entertainment Intl. “But there is no question that Berlin is different than what it was just a few years ago, and that it is becoming a real market.”

A Mandate Intl. spokesman underscores the point by saying that in the last five years Berlin’s sales activity and its ability to launch projects “has really grown.”

Already this week, the fringes of the market have witnessed footage or private screenings for “Young Victoria” from Initial Entertainment, “Che” Friday night from Wild Bunch and “Passengers” from Mandate.

“I saw a list of the distributors coming here from all over the world and we decided to show (“Young Victoria”),” says GK Films’ Graham King. “It’s a real market. I’ve been here a couple of times but I’ve never seen it like this with so many distributors.”

Mandate’s monochrome concept trailer of Sam Raimi’s horror-cum-morality tale easily places “Drag Me to Hell” as the hottest new project now available to buyers. “The special effects look great,” said one buyer. “And you just know that the genre and the Raimi name are going to make it connect with audiences.”

Although the strike issues have capped the number of projects with funding, casting and scripts already in place — and some companies, such as Focus Films, have simply chosen to hold back project launches until Cannes, when they hope for greater clarity — buyers have so far appeared fairly enthused by what they are being pitched.

Some companies such as Pathe Intl., 2929 Entertainment and Paramount Vantage appear to be holding aces.

Berlin also reps only the second time that studio division Par Vantage has shown up at a market as a seller.

Having the ability to distribute through Paramount’s studio distribs (and the remains of UIP) or to sell off rights gives the venture plenty of flexibility.

“We can get the best fit for all our movies,” said Alex Walton, senior VP of international sales at Par Vantage. “However, any film that was fully locked and loaded before the sales company existed, that will still go through the Paramount structure as we have TV deals in place.”

Coming in to Berlin, Par Vantage advertised five titles at different stages of readiness, including two from its relationship with Overture Films, but it has been actively offering some buyers the chance to bid for others, too.

Notable among these are British thriller “Son of Rambow,” where the sales division is breaking off individual territories. These include Benelux, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, where Sandrew Metronome is in advanced negotiations.

Other projects creating heat include:

  • Sidney Lumet’s “Getting Out” at Capitol Films;

  • Oliver Stone’s “Bush” at QED;

  • “Freakonomics” at Celsius Entertainment;

  • “Big Eyes” with Kate Hudson at Voltage Pictures;

  • Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” Nash Egerton’s “The Square” and “Paris 36″ at Pathe;

  • Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” for which Mickey Rourke recently replaced Nicolas Cage and Wild Bunch replaced Summit as sales agent;

  • Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours,” for which market screenings were abruptly canceled this week in order to ensure qualification for Cannes competition; and Gilles Beat’s “Diamant 13″ with Gerard Depardieu, both at MK2;

  • Cage vehicle “Knowing” at Summit Entertainment;

  • “Book of Blood” at Essential Entertainment;

  • “Villain”; the new Joel Schumacher-helmed project; and a new Stephen Soderbergh project with Matt Damon to be announced at Cannes from 2929 Entertainment;

  • “The Messenger” at ContentFilm;

  • “Shelter” at IM Global;

  • Barbet Schroeder’s Japan-set thriller “Inju,” which looks to be headed for Cannes, at UGC;

  • Bruce Beresford’s “Mao’s Last Dancer” at Celluloid Dreams;

  • Martin Scorsese’s untitled Bob Marley documentary at Fortissimo Films;

  • and Ian Fitzgibbon’s untitled gangland thriller starring James McAvoy, at HanWay.

Buyers are also talking up the new Stephen Frears pic starring Julianne Moore, even though a sales agent, widely expected to be Icon, has not officially signed on.

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