Fewer U.S. buyers, box office drop hit pics

Since last spring’s slow Cannes for U.S. deals, the Europeans have watched with concern as the summer shake-up in the Stateside specialty sector has narrowed their trans-Atlantic options even further.

European producers, sales agents and financiers are approaching the fall festivals with trepidation. Toronto will be the first real chance for them to inspect the damage firsthand.

“There’s a smaller pool of buyers, but it’s too soon to say what the effect on us will be,” says Gordon Spragg of Paris-based arthouse seller Celluloid Dreams. “We won’t see the impact really until Toronto or even Sundance.”

Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse are gone, Paramount Vantage has been restructured and New Line downsized. Netflix has closed its Red Envelope theatrical label, while the likes of ThinkFilm, Tartan USA and Peace Arch have been roiled by financial problems.

The omens for Euro pics at Toronto aren’t good. After a couple of strong years with hits such as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “La Vie en rose” and “The Lives of Others,” Old World cinema has struggled to make an impression on the domestic box office in 2008.

Sergei Bodrov’s “Mongol” from Russia and Stefan Rusowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters” from Germany topped $5 million each. France’s “Priceless” has topped $2 million, while “Tell No One” rode word of mouth to some $3 million. But only a handful of others, including “Roman de gare” from France, “Caramel” from Lebanon and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” from Romania, have hit more than $1 million.

British films are always a separate case, thanks to the English language and the intermingling of the talent pool with Hollywood. But even there, the picture isn’t exactly rosy. Brit pickups “Brick Lane,” “Boy A” and “Son of Rambow” all fared poorly in ’08.

“If you take the top 200 specialized films released in the U.S., perhaps five or 10 have actually made money,” notes one leading Euro sales agent. “You always have to spend at least $3 million to $4 million on P&A for any reasonable release, but most don’t do $1┬ámillion box office, and the distributors don’t recoup from DVD or TV deals. That’s why all those companies are pulling out.”

Selling non-English-language films to the U.S. has become so tough in recent years, it’s questionable if the situation can really get much worse.

Stefanie Zeitler, head of sales at Germany’s Bavaria Film Intl., says it’s more a question of prices going down than sales drying up completely. “It seems more difficult, but there’s still a certain demand for our kind of titles, even though maybe it’s not as good a business as before.”

So far this year, Zeitler has managed to sell Swedish helmer Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In,” a poetic teen vampire love story, to Magnolia, after significant interest from several distribs. “(Based on) the success of ‘Let the Right One In,’ which is really the first genre film we have handled, we are looking to acquire more like that,” she says.

But she has also sold Doris Doerrie’s more conventional German arthouser “Cherry Blossoms” to Strand, and is about to close a U.S. deal for “Moscow Belgium,” a gritty Belgian romance. At Toronto, she will be shopping Daniel Burman’s Argentine drama “Empty Nest,” Israeli auteur Amos Kollek’s “Restless” and, in a different league entirely, the $15 million German fantasy kids actioner “Krabat.”

The proliferation of video-on-demand players is offering an alternate U.S. distribution route, according to Zeitler, although such deals aren’t yet financially significant. “We already have a lot of VOD platforms buying product, particularly in the U.S., even if they are not yet so much used by the public,” she notes. “(VOD) can give (library titles) a second life, or it can give new films a chance to be seen.”

For foreign-language pics, a U.S. sale is a bonus, not a necessity. Yet the contraction of U.S. specialty distribution poses a greater challenge for European producers of midbudget, English-language fare, for whom a U.S. deal is an essential part of their financing plan.

Domestic presales have become increasingly rare, which explains why so many such movies are heading for Toronto in search of that vital U.S. deal. These include Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” Stephan Elliott’s “Easy Virtue,” Gabor Csupo’s “The Secret of Moonacre,” Vicente Amorim’s “Good” and Richard Eyre’s “The Other Man.”

London-based HandMade Films Intl. is taking two such pics to Toronto — Kari Skogland’s “Fifty Dead Men Walking” and Menno Meyjes’ bullfighter biopic “Manolete,” starring Adrien Brody and Penelope Cruz. “We have lost some companies which would have been direct contenders for these films, so it’s not going to be any easier to sell them,” topper Guy Collins notes.

Collins explains it now makes more sense for HandMade to focus on big-budget mainstream fare, such as current projects “Eloise in Paris” and “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle,” that can draw the big studios rather than their specialty arms. “Both these films are attracting serious dialogue on the domestic front,” he says. “The dual effect of the WGA strike and the threat of (a) SAG (strike) means that the studios have some gaps in their schedule(s), particularly at the end of next year. If you’re an independent who’s got some bigger movies, this is not a bad time to make some deals.”

The benefit of having bigger pics was illustrated by HandMade’s experience with the

$50 million Spanish-made CGI animated project “Planet 51.” The pic was originally placed at New Line in the U.S., but when NL was folded into Warner and Warner wobbled on the release date, it took just 72 hours to line up an alternate deal at Sony.

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