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Berlin: Sellers Hit the Festival and Market With Mixed Expectations

Sellers are heading to Berlin with realistic expectations about the state of the marketplace and the hurdles facing them.

“Consistently delivering great movies has always been the challenge, but you need the rigor required for that even more so now,” says Sierra/Affinity CEO Nick Meyer, who’ll be repping the WWI-era drama “The Promise,” starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, in Berlin. “The demand for excellence in filmmaking from independent distributors around the world is higher than ever.”

While Meyer is pragmatic about the global economy (“There are always going to be currency fluctuations and markets that are up and down — that’s the rule,” he says), others see a more ominous landscape.

“The fundamental issue right now is that every single territory in the world has problems that are very challenging, not just for the cinema market, but politically and economically,” says FilmNation Entertainment senior VP of international sales Tara Erer, citing Brexit currency uncertainties in the U.K., pay-TV market woes in France, and unrest in Brazil and the Middle East.

“I don’t think there’s been a time in the past 10 years or so where every distributor you talk to says there are challenges they’re struggling to overcome. So they’re having a tough time figuring out which films to buy — which raises the bar significantly — and say they’re not in a place to buy. . . . But they still need to, and you still have to finance films. It creates a cycle of people trying to figure out how to get out of this rut.”

How can sellers get beyond this? “Where there are currency issues, you have to be more creative in your deals and realistic in how you price,” Erer says. One example, which can work in the right circumstances, is structuring gross corridor deals for television — where sellers accept a lower minimum guarantee but share in the success when a film sells to TV.

“People are no longer reeling from shock over the way the economic model has changed, given the global decline of ancillary revenues,” says Mister Smith Entertainment founder/CEO David Garrett, who’s bringing Terrence Malick’s WWII-era love story “Radegund” to the market.

“It’s become a tighter financial equation than it used to be, and that’s something we’ve all had to adapt to. People understand that they need to compromise, that the business is no longer the ‘magic porridge pot’ it used to be, and you have to develop projects that clearly are right for the market.”

Getting the right stars is another hurdle, something that Sierra/Affinity’s Meyer and IM Global international sales and distribution president Michael Rothstein both say is much tougher with new tentpoles and high-quality TV fare. “One of the challenges is having product that’s attractive enough to [stars] that they’ll want to still be involved in independent movies and not just be locked up with a studio film for four to six months,” Rothstein says, citing indie stalwart Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent “Doctor Strange” success as a cautionary tale.

How has the rise of streaming platforms affected prices? “There’s a short-term and long-term effect,” says Garrett. “At the moment, Amazon and Netflix have quite a voracious appetite, because they’re starting up operations in a lot of territories and seem to need a lot of volume. They’re possibly prepared to be quite generous, and I’m sure there are quite a few sales companies who’ve been rescued by them buying up 10-15 territories that might have remained unsold theatrically. But I think inevitably, once they’re established, they’ll graduate to commissioning more films more directly and won’t need quite the same volume.”

Adds Rothstein: “When we’re selling to certain countries where Netflix or Amazon are, it’s hard to deny their impact. And VOD platforms are changing the windowing and not necessarily making up the same price point as DVDs. But on a day-to-day basis, when we’re selling something, we’re still talking to the same buyers we were talking to three years ago.”

Meyer says that in terms of territorial sales, streaming platforms “are a buyer for us, but they’re also supporting a lot of independent distributors through their SVOD windows and competing for rights for projects. So it’s fluid — we’ll sell them movies, they engage us to help sell some of their movies. I think it’s a time where you’ve got to be flexible, opportunistic, and focus on great intellectual properties.”

Before the fest, UTA sold Cate Shortland’s thriller “Berlin Syndrome,” starring Teresa Palmer, to Netflix. Memento Films Intl. is selling international rights in Berlin.

The high-quality TV that steaming and cable outlets often deliver also affects what types of movies make it to the big screen. “There are certain demographics that are less well-served, [which offer] strong opportunities for solid theatrical business,” says Charlotte Walls, co-founder/CEO of producer-financier-seller Catalyst Global Media. One such target: older audiences for the retirement comedy “Finding Your Feet,” which Catalyst is previewing with footage in Berlin (CAA is selling domestic). Another trend Walls forecasts: more upbeat fare in theaters.

“Where television can afford to go darker and take big creative risks in terms of storytelling, we’re looking at stories that give a sense of fun to theatrical audiences,” she says.

What kind of films are selling now? “What we’re seeing in the international distribution space is that the most obvious movies which everyone thinks will work maybe don’t work, and these little surprise movies end up doing really well for everyone,” says Highland Film Group’s CEO Arianne Fraser, who’s selling the Margot Robbie-toplined thriller “Terminal.” She cites sleeper hits such as “Hell or High Water,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “La La Land” as good examples of the latter.

But some straightforward commercial indie fare is also selling. “We’re doing more high-concept, lower-budget genre movies —up to four or five a year,” Rothstein adds. “At the price point we’re selling them for, they could have a limited theatrical release in certain territories or just go to the ancillary market. Those films are still working, [including] horror, which everybody’s saying has sort of gone away.”

As for stars who can push indie film pre-sales, aside from such obvious names as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Fraser notes that these frequently change from market to market. Actors who’ve shown up on a lot of sellers’ lists lately include Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (well before “La La Land” tied the record by nabbing 14 Oscar noms), Jake Gyllenhaal, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

“Historically, a lot of people haven’t brought big, high-profile movies to Berlin,” Rothstein says. “So if you’re one of those companies that do, whether it’s one or two films, you can still do a lot of good business.”

Two of last year’s most notable deals were Paramount’s domestic buy of George Clooney-helmed “Suburbicon” for around $10 million, and Focus’ $9 million pickup of Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” for North America and most international territories.

But regardless of sales, the festival and market continue to have other benefits for many of the independent film biz’s top players.
“Occasionally you’ll find something that’s a bit of a diamond in the rough, and some years you just don’t buy anything,” notes Michael Barker, co-pesident of Sony Pictures Classics, which just bought Luca Guadagnino’s gay romantic drama “Call Me by Your Name” starring Armie Hammer right before its Sundance premiere from UTA and WME.

“[But] the value of networking in Berlin — meeting producers, sales agents, and other distributors from all over the world — is amazing. That pays off over the course of the whole year, and along with discovering new films, that’s one of the main reasons we go.”

Some titles that are generating heat:

“Captive State”

Director: Rupert Wyattt

Producers: David Crockett, Rupert Wyatt

Key cast: John Goodman, Ashton Sanders

Sci-fi thriller set in a Chicago neighborhood nearly a decade after it has been occupied by an extraterrestrial force.

Sales: Lionsgate

“Cries From Syria”

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

Producers: Evgeny Afineevsky, Den Tolmor, Aaron I. Butler

Documentary about the harrowing situation in Syria recently bowed at Sundance; HBO has U.S. rights.

Sales: Content Media

“Entebbe”

Director: José Padilha

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kate Solomon, Michelle Wright, Ron Halpern

Key cast: Rosamund Pike, Daniel Bruhl, Eddie Marsan

The true story of one of the most daring hostage rescues in history.

Sales: Lionsgate

“Heidi: Queen of the Mountain”

Director: Bhavna Talwar

Producers: Sheetal Vinod Talwar, Simon Wright

Key cast: Bill Nighy

First of a trilogy of films based on the classic character.

Sales: DDI

“Hollow in the Land”

Director: Scooter Corkle

Producers: Marlaina Mah, Jesse Savath

Key cast: Dianna Agron, Shawn Ashmore, Rachelle Lefevre

Crime thriller set in a remote mountain town.

Sales: West End Films

“Killing Ground”

Director: Damien Power

Producers: Joe Weatherstone & Lisa Shaunessy

Key cast: Aaron Pedersen, Ian Meadows, Harriet Dyer, Aaron Glenane

Thriller premiered recently at Sundance.

Sales: Films Distribution

“Lost in London”

Director: Woody Harrelson

Producers: Woody Harrelson, Ken Kao

Key cast: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson

Loosely based on a crazy night full of real-life events, film follows Harrelson, playing himself, as he struggles to get home to his family.

Sales: Bloom (international); CAA (U.S.)

“Lucky”

Director: Sergio Castellitto

Producer: Indigo Film/Universal Pictures Intl.

Key cast: Jasmine Trinca, Stefano Accorsi, Hanna Schygulla

Drama about a single mom struggling in Rome’s working class outskirts to open a hairdressing salon.

Sales: True Colours

“Radegund” (working title)

Director: Terrence Malick

Producers: Grant Hill, Dario Bergesio, Marcus Loges, Josh Jeter, Elisabeth Bentley

Key cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz

Set in World War II-ravaged Europe, film explores bravery, conscience, and romantic love.

Sales: Mister Smith Entertainment

“We’re Just Married”

Writer: David Rabe

Director: Rodrigo García

Key cast: Lily Rabe, Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina

A portrait of a highly complicated, emotionally charged, and painfully funny romantic triangle, set in the 1970s.

Sales: The Exchange

“Carter & June”

Director: Nicholas Kalikow

Producers: Sean Covel, Diane Richey & Kyle Roper

Key cast: Michael Raymond-James, Samaire Armstrong, Timothy Omundson

Film tells the story of down-and-out New Orleans con man who tries to pay off a debt to a ruthless strip club owner by piggybacking off of someone else’s bank robbery and immediately gets in way over his head.

Sales Agent: Octane Entertainment

“Berlin Syndrome”

Director: Cate Shortland

Producer: Polly Staniford

Key cast Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt

UTA sold to Netflix and Vertical Entertainment

Sales: Memento Films Intl.

“Call My By Your Name”

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Producers: Emilie Georges, Luca Guadagnino, James Ivory, Marco Morabito, Howard Rosenman, Peter Spears, Rodrigo Teixeira

Key cast Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois

UTA with WME sold worldwide to Sony Pictures Classics

Sales: Memento Films Intl.

“My Fairy Troublemaker & Me”

Director: Florian Westermann

Producers: Maite Woköck, Ilona Schultz

Boisterous 10-year-old Maxie can’t believe her eyes when lovely, little, funky fairy Violetta turns up in her bedroom. With her help, Maxie sees her big dream come true: to return to her grandmother’s house in the countryside. But soon it turns out that Violetta is a magical washout suffering from a serious chocolate addiction.

Sales: Global Screen

 

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