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Brits Shine a Light on European Auteurs in Berlin

The latest films from Agnieszka Holland, Joanna Hogg, Lone Scherfig and Sally Potter will be repped by U.K.-based sales firms in Berlin as the Brits continue to carve out a profile for European auteur-driven movies. Scherfig’s Berlinale opener “The Kindness of Strangers,” Holland’s Stalin-era competition title “Mr. Jones,” and Hogg’s “The Souvenir” from the Panorama sidebar all have U.K. sales agents – HanWay Films, WestEnd Films, and Protagonist Pictures, respectively.

As the Brits enjoy a moment in the sun, the effects of the Brexit clouds on the horizon remain an uncomfortable unknown. An even more pressing issue in recent weeks, however, was the proximity of Sundance to Berlin this year, which put Brits who made the trans-Atlantic trip on a tight schedule.

It was a high-class problem for Cornerstone Films, which is run by industry veterans Alison Thompson and Mark Gooder. It had five films at Sundance including Bart Freundlich’s “After the Wedding” remake, Gurinder Chadha’s Thatcher-era drama “Blinded by the Light,” and Mirrah Foulkes’ directorial debut “Judy and Punch.”

“We’re helped by fact there is a shorter period of time between the two markets,” Thompson told Variety while en-route to Utah. “There’s always been a good synergy between Sundance and Berlin but I think this year with even less time between the two it will feel like seguing from one to another seamlessly.”

The timing did present a challenge for anyone boarding sales on new projects ahead of heading to Germany. “We picked up ‘Monsters and Men’ at Sundance last year and were able to turn it around and present it in Berlin,” says Gabrielle Stewart, HanWay’s managing director, also while on her way to Sundance. “That would be very challenging this year.”

If Sundance is a U.S. shop window, Berlin is crucial for the Brits to meet international buyers. HanWay and Protagonist are among those who will host screenings to show the first footage from new films.

Sales agents from France and other major European territories still enjoy advantages the British do not, but the business is changing in ways that plays to the strengths of the U.K. firms.

“The model [now] is being involved very, very early and being able to work with financing partners and producers at both a finance and creative level so there is a sense of control, a sense of awareness of market influences right at the very beginning,” says Gooder. “You’re making a real partnership with people and you become very strategic about everything you do in the marketplace in order to preserve the upside.”

London is an international hub for commerce so it is no surprise the sales firms in the capital have a global mindset. “We’re very multinational, a total melting pot… that’s a huge advantage” says Stewart. “It’s just really easy and practical for us to sell international and position films, and to understand what the European market especially is doing.”

Accordingly, the Brits are tuned into both local and international talent. Protagonist will be in Berlin with “The Souvenir,” and having early conversations about its recently announced sequel. It worked with William Oldroyd on “Lady Macbeth,” Francis Lee on “God’s Own Country,” and Michael Pearce on “Beast, their feature directing debuts, and has projects including Ben Sharrock’s refugee drama “Limbo” coming through.

“We have a strong connection with a lot of great British talent, and we want to champion first-time filmmakers in the U.K.,” says Protagonist CEO Dave Bishop. “But it’s not exclusively about the U.K., we are also working with people around the world. That’s particularly linked to our ambitions in the development and production space, which is a growing part of our business.”

Financing and coproduction smarts are a forte of the U.K. firms. “We helped set up ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ as a Canada-Denmark coproduction, we have that expertise and [CEO] Jeremy [Thomas] has been doing films with Japan ever since I can remember,” says Stewart. HanWay did “Dogman” with Matteo Garrone and will partner with the Italian helmer again on a live-action “Pinocchio,” which starts shooting in March. “The connections to talent are there,” she says. “We are very well placed geographically and time-zone wise.”

Brexit is coming, however. The related currency fluctuations can work to the Brits’ advantage but sales folk are agreed that a “hard Brexit,” meaning Britain leaves the European Union without agreeing a trade deal, would be bad for business.

Sales firms now apply for P&A support from the E.U. on behalf of the distributors with whom they work. The U.K. government will underwrite subsidies granted before Brexit including some distribution support, but that does not extend to assistance for other E.U.-affiliated sub-programs from the likes of European Film Promotion or Europa Cinemas. In a hard-Brexit scenario the pipeline of new subsidies is shut off, with implications for art-house and auteur-driven titles that would resonate beyond British shores.

“The U.K. is a stepping stone for many auteurs to access the U.S. market,” says Xavier Henry-Rashid, managing director of art-house specialist Film Republic. Without the distribution support it would become challenging for U.K. firms to board E.U.-originated projects, he adds: “I find that distributors are sometimes more interested in access to distribution finance than quality of a film, this is often the first question,” he says. “I understand it, the market for world cinema is volatile.”

While a slim majority of the U.K. electorate voted to leave the E.U., the film business is firmly in the “Remain” camp. Many U.K. firms are leading the way in indie film finance, production, and sales, and say the business is tough enough without an added Brexit headache. “We all work with a model that has far less fat in it than ever before,” says the sales chief of one London-based outfit.

“The process of finding material, coming on board, finding a filmmaker, finding the cast, finding a finance plan that works, finding your financial partners and taking it to market can be a long and arduous one,” says Cornerstone’s Thompson. “It ain’t for the faint-hearted.”

From Britain to the World… by Way of Berlin
“The Kindness of Strangers”
Director: Lone Scherfig
Sales: HanWay Films
The festival curtain-raiser and the latest from Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (“An Education”). The ensemble drama follows a group of people gathered in a Manhattan restaurant and trying to survive a New York winter. “When we discussed finding a logline we didn’t need one – it’s a film about the kindness of strangers, it restores your faith in people,” says HanWay Films’ M.D. Gabrielle Stewart. “In terms of it being commercial it has such a cracking cast and beautifully uses Manhattan. It feels like a triumphant film for our dark times.”

“The Souvenir”
Director: Joanna Hogg
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
British auteur Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” gets its European premiere after bowing at Sundance where Variety said it was “a brilliant, self-effacing memory piece.” It follows a shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne), who begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). Her mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her mother in the film. “It’s an incredibly high quality piece of cinema,” says Protagonist’s Dave Bishop. “We’re quietly confident that it will be very well received by critics, audiences, and buyers. A24 will be releasing it in North America.

“Mr. Jones”
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Sales: WestEnd Films
Academy Award nominee Agnieszka Holland’s “Mr. Jones” has its world premiere in Official Competition at Berlin. James Norton plays the titular Welsh journalist who uncovers a man-made famine in 1930s Ukraine. Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard also star. Holland said she knew it was an important story but the modern-day connections to fake news and corruption of the media only dawned after shooting. “In the world right now we sort of have this populist right, and so we need figures like Agnieszka and Gareth Jones to latch our hope onto,” Norton previously told Variety.

Director: Lina Maria Mannheimer
Sales: Film Republic
Swedish filmmaker Lina Maria Mannheimer sets out to investigate young love. She decides to follow two Millennials over the internet, to track each of their dating habits, and see how they create their digital personas over a year. She finds her two subjects and the film takes an unforeseen twist when they start dating one another.

“Show Me the Picture”
Director: Alfred George Bailey
Sales: Film Constellation
Alfred George Bailey profiles American photographer James Joseph Marshall in this Berlin-bound feature doc. Marshall captured the musicians who shaped the cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s including Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

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