Defying Expectations, Berlin Sees Surge in Movie Sales

In one of the best Berlin markets in recent years, a bevy of high-budgeted, star-driven movie projects hit the EFM

EFM European Film Market Berlinale Placeholder
Lia Darjes Courtesy of Juliane Eirich/Berlinale EFM

Confounding industry pessimism, Berlin’s 2018 European Film Market proved the most vibrant in years, led by titles such as “Green Book” with Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, “Kung Fury” with Michael Fassbender, “Afterburn” with Gerard Butler and Roland Emmerich’s epic “Maya Lord.”

The surprising buoyancy can be ascribed to a flurry of last-minute announcements of big new projects. Emmerich only presented “Maya Lord,” a historical drama budgeted in the $60 million-$70 million range, to buyers Thursday, the first day of the EFM. Even later came news of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attachment to “Kung Fury,” and of the director (Jung Byung-gil) and sales agent (Capstone Group) for “Afterburn,” a $60 million futuristic action adventure.

By the weekend, there were at least a dozen big titles “which everyone, one way or another, is trying to get,” said Ivan Boeing of Brazil’s Imagem, talking about mainstream distributors.

Buzzy deals include the announcement Monday of distribution in most major territories for Lionsgate Intl.’s drama-comedy “Green Book,” from Peter Farrelly. It should sell out by market’s end. Lionsgate had reportedly started pre-sales even before the market began on a powerful slate topped by “Green Book,” Keanu Reeves’ “John Wick: Chapter 3” and sci-fi actioner “Hummingbird” with Milla Jovovich.

STX Intl. revealed it is selling out on Alicia Vikander psychological thriller “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” Jake Gyllenhaal crime thriller “Finest Kind” and “Killer’s Game” with Jason Statham.

John Friedberg, head of sales at STX, noted, “It has been a busy market for us, and I hear for other companies like FilmNation. We may have had two of the top titles in the market in ‘Finest Kind’ and ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter.’ And we were very pleased by the reception for our animation presentation in Berlin at the Adlon Hotel, which included new title ‘Ugly Dolls.’ ” 
STX itself bought “Finest Kind” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter” for the U.K., where it is a distributor. The rest, Friedberg said,  was sold through output deals and sales won’t be announced title by title.
Studiocanal’s family adventure “Mia and the White Lion,” produced by Jacques Perrin (“Winged Migration”), will be almost sold out after the market, the company’s Anne Chérel said.

Other high-profile films sparking large distributor interest included Cornerstone’s “After the Wedding” starring Julianne Moore, FilmNation’s “Personal History of David Copperfield” and Sierra/Affinity’s “Ben is Back” with Julia Roberts.

Talked-about upscale titles include Pablo Trapero’s “La Quietud,” one of multiple Cannes contenders sold by Wild Bunch; Isabelle Coixet’s “The Bookshop,” on which Celsius announced a slew of new EFM deals; and Alexey German Jr.’s Berlin competition favorite, “Dovlatov,” from Alpha Violet.

Why Berlin, in contrast to the American Film Market and Sundance, has suddenly seen such a bumper crop of coveted product is another question.

“There are a lot of theories. It might just be coincidence, or that the SVOD players are getting out of the independent film business,” said Constantin’s Martin Moszkowicz. “A lot of titles at the AFM were pushed back to Berlin.”

For the last few years, foreign distributors have bemoaned the dearth of big titles coming onto the market. Deeper-pocketed sales, production and investment companies — including some new players such as 30West, which financed “Finest Kind” and “Late Night” — are now stepping up to fill that demand.

In the past, Hollywood studios have preempted Berlin’s market, buying many of its biggest titles. So far, the majors look less active. “The studios release 15 to 20 [films], mostly all big titles,” Boeing said. “Do they still need multiple movies from the Berlinale, Sundance or Cannes? Apparently not.”

Then there’s China. In Berlin and at the EFM this year, China was a quiet force rather than dominant or noisy. Sellers reported a steady trickle of deals on smaller titles, rather than headline-grabbing moves. That may have reflected the clash in timing between the EFM and the Chinese New Year holiday, and a growing understanding of the power of well-made local films in the Chinese market.

Chinese film players are, however, positioning themselves increasingly as financiers and co-producers, rather than simply as buyers. China’s market potential and growing production role may help to explain the large number of action titles, a popular genre of Chinese audiences, at the EFM. Hitman actioner “Killer’s Game” could well have Chinese financing, according to John Friedberg at STXinternational. China’s Fundamental Films is producing “Hummingbird.”

The question is whether Berlin’s sales surge this year will be an outlier. Cannes will provide a bit of an answer. For the moment, however, “the really important message is that the industry is not dead,” Moszkowicz said. “People are buying movies.”