Once upon a time it seemed there was just CineMart in Rotterdam and New York’s Independent Feature Project. Nowadays, every smart festival has a project market.

These handholding events, which literally put producers and directors in the same room as financiers and distributors to talk about preselected movie projects, have caught on so much that even the venerable Cannes festival set up its own “ateliers du festival” a couple of years back. But the expansion may be reaching the point of overkill — or at least diminishing returns.

“We don’t need any more project markets, just as we don’t need any more film markets,” says Wouter Barendrecht, co-head of film sales agent Fortissimo.

Barendrecht is obviously an interested party as his company is a big user of project markets, both as pitcher of projects and as a financier. And he was previously an exec at CineMart and founder of Hong Kong Asia Film Finance Forum (HAF). But he is genuinely worried about the effects of market multiplication.

“Of course quality is going down. Now, just as every festival wants to have world premieres of films, every market wants to have the world premiere of projects. That’s ridiculous. Where will it end? With the world premieres of clips?” he asks.

While CineMart is now 20 years old and is considered the granddaddy to many others, project marts really only caught on elsewhere about a decade ago when in 1997 the Mannheim-Heidelberg fest set up its Coproduction Meetings, the Pusan festival established its Pusan Promotion Plan in 1998, and Hong Kong launched HAF as an adjunct to Filmart in 2000. Since then the pace of launches has accelerated.

Career opportunities

“We like to see multiple markets as giving multiple opportunities to films,” says Lim Jiyoon, PPP coordinator. She concedes that markets have to compete with each other to attract projects perceived as the most attractive, but denies that marts select “trophy” helmers.

“Famous directors have their own reasons for attending. Presenting may get them early attention from the industry and trade papers. But often they simply still need funds for production.”

The theory behind project markets varies little from event to event — selection of projects that correspond to the philosophy of the parent festival; invitations to sales agents, distribs, banks and equity investors; prearrangement of one-on-one meetings and a fairly rigorous use of time — and many claim to have been inspired by CineMart.

For years, CineMart’s very holistic way of thinking has seen it not only select and present projects, but the related Hubert Bals Fund invests and gives prizes to culturally worthy productions. The parent festival showcases CineMart alumni across its sections and has regularly acquired Dutch rights to completed pictures that might not otherwise have secured theatrical release.

Few marts can claim such united effort, and many have sought to differentiate themselves from each other: HAF sees itself as more commercially oriented than Rotterdam’s indie and arthouse selection, Sarajevo seeks to be more Balkan than Mannheim, and the Tokyo Project Gathering as more animation-centric than PPP, which precedes it by barely a week.

Now most go further and seek to emphasize wider festival tradition and bigger service packages.

“We don’t want HAF to be a one-off event in March, but something that makes a difference before, during and after,” says Ivy Ho, HAF director. “We aim to provide a complete range of options for filmmakers, which is why we work with Filmart, with the Hong Kong festival, why we put on our own screenings and is why we have cooperated with the Hubert Bals Fund on a cash prize. We also benefit from backing of the Trade Development Council, which attends markets around the year and puts out a monthly newsletter.”

If the blossoming of project markets is a sign of the times in the indie sector, it is not clear whether they are mirroring change in the industry or driving it.

Beyond borders

“HAF has helped Asian co-productions. Nowadays there are no purely Hong Kong productions. Nearly every film these days is made with Chinese or Asian partners — or with Europeans or even Americans,” says Ho. “That’s a model that the Europeans have had for years. Nowadays, Asian audiences are looking for good productions and new talent. They don’t hesitate to reject something local if it is not good enough and are increasingly watching nonlocal productions.”

Others see the rise of project marts and co-productions, which tie up increasing numbers of territory rights, as part of the explanation for the changing shape of sales markets. Based around screenings of completed movies, sales marts find it increasingly difficult to showcase genuinely unseen pictures and generate bidding battles. None of this has fazed CineMart, which even its rivals say still leads the field.

“We’ve fine-tuned our organizational strength and our selection process and reached out to American companies like Weinstein and Focus. And to date we’ve focused on traditional films, traditional companies and traditional finance,” says CineMart manager Marit van den Elshout, though she warns that things may be about to change.

“We’ve been asking about the changing role of film festivals and the changing nature of film distribution. We’ve attended several digital markets and are examining some of the subscription models that are emerging in the States,” she says. “We may launch our own digital mini-festival in the very near future.”