Berlin bizzers seek value, smart budgets

Studios in the market for indies, China looking good

The snow had melted by Wednesday at the European Film Market and so had the heat on the marketplace but it’s clear that certain trends had emerged.

Studios were more active, budgets were contained and attractive to buyers, new territories emerged as competitive while stars and name disrectors — as usual — were able to boost buys.

“The buyers are very cautious in prebuying when dealing with theatrical releases and so they should be. Successful independent movies such as ‘The Artist,’ ‘Untouchables,’ ‘The Woman in Black,’ ‘The Twilight Saga’ and soon to be released ‘Hunger Games’ gave them confidence and of course has recycled money into the system,” said Patrick Wachsberger, co-chairmain of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group.

He noted that the market showed significant improvement in China, while Latin America, Germany and the U.K. have become highly competitive just as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy are down for a variety of reasons.

One notable trend at Berlinale was the increase in studio pickups at the market: in addition to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisition’s swift pickup of “2 Guns,” Universal acquired multi territory rights to J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” from FilmNation Entertainment.

But this, says Focus Features Intl.’s Alison Thompson, is down to relatively high-profile projects causing a stir.

“It’s more an indication of Berlin having that bigger product, which is more unusual than ever before,” she said.

Indeed, the Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg $84 million actioner “2 Guns” caused a stir before Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions snapped up most international territories. Pic clocked up $45-50 million in presales, marking the best ever market for Mark Damon’s Foresight Unlimited.

Radiant Films’ Mimi Steinbauer, who launched her standalone sales outfit at EFM this year, says the studio activity this year at Berlin shows “there is still space in the studio world for independent projects.”

Glen Basner, whose FilmNation outfit virtually sold out on all titles including “All is Lost,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Bitter Pill” and Philip Seymour Hoffman starrer “A Most Wanted Man,” says overall the market “remains very stable and healthy in terms of trading.”

“It always goes back to how compelling of an argument we can make with the films that we’re bringing to market,” he says.

Indies with more muscle went on a buying spree at EFM this year: eOne and Alliance splashed the cash with both Canadian-based multi-territory distribs bidding aggressively on most buzz titles and often ended up battling it out for U.K. and Canadian rights.

“There were solid titles at Berlin this year,” said Robert Walak, Alliance’s senior VP of worldwide acquisitions, who spearheaded pickups of “Everly,” “A Most Wanted Man” and Exclusive Media’s Scarlett Johansson starrer “Can a Song Save Your Life. “Everyone came away with something but we really concentrated on projects that we felt had really good scripts and were priced well.”

Budgets for popular titles, by and large, remained contained but, says The Solution Entertainment Group’s Lisa Wilson, attractiveness is not measured necessarily by budget.

“It’s so much about material,” she says. “It doesn’t boil down just to what the budget is. For the right material and good cast, buyers are active.”

Proving that point, Nick Meyer of outfit Sierra/Affinity reported strong sales across its entire slate, which included the remake “Heat,” werewolf pic “Wer” and Sundance comedy “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” which stars Rashida Jones, who also co-wrote the script.

“Despite the market being very tough and some territories where we had to pull back and wait for Cannes, generally we have done excellent business in Berlin,” rolling off “a much stronger line-up internationally,” said Studiocanal head of distribution Harold van Lier, citing “Serena,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Last Exorcism 2.”

In terms of arthouse pictures and crossover business, Films Distribution partner Nicolas Brigaud-Robert sales “sales volume was high but prices were low.”

However, he said that business was brisk on Films’ two Oscar-nominated title – Canada’s “Monsieur Lazhar” and toon pic “A Cat in Paris” – and Films’ two Berlin competition titles “Captives” and “War Witch.”

Additional breakouts among art pics include Pacha’s “My Brother the Devil,” Latido’s “Violeta Went to Heaven” (both Sundance winners) and Cite Films’ “The Other Son.”

Beta Cinema got off to a brisk start with sales for Agnieszka Holland’s Polish Holocaust drama “In Darkness” and Tim Fehlbaum’s theatrical debut “Hell.”

Beta is also expecting to close a number of deals on Doris Doerrie’s Berlinale Special screener “Bliss” and Matthias Glasner’s Competition title “Mercy” in the coming days.

(John Hopewell and Ed Meza contributed to this report).