Berlin Film Market: Unsettled, Angry and Adjusting to Upheaval

EFM European Film Market 67th Berlinale
Jens Kalaene/picture-alliance/dp

After its usual slow start, Berlin’s European Film Market came to closely resemble the state of the underlying film industry: unsettled, angry and uneasily attempting to adjust to major change.

Where the film festival has new leaders in artistic director Carlo Chatrian and managing director Mariette Rissenbeek, following changes of leadership at Panorama and Forum, the EFM similarly wrestled with new screening rooms and venues. But the new team’s inaugural competition lineup has so far yielded few standouts. Certainly nothing that has sent buyers rushing for their check books.

“During this market there’s less specific conversation about films and more talk about the changes in the infrastructure of the industry and big company news. People are trying to get a 30,000-foot perspective, as opposed to being in the trenches on the films,” said Dylan Leiner, executive VP of acquisitions and productions at Sony Pictures Classics.

Much dialogue this week at the EFM’s Martin Gropius Bau has turned to streaming, studio and distributor consolidation, and power of the U.S. talent agencies.

“Absolutely, the market is being disrupted by the streamers. There is only a limited number of them, jockeying for position,” says the U.K.’s Phil Hunt, who controls financier Head Gear Films and sales agent Bankside. “American agencies have become a pain in the a–e. While they have nothing at risk, they are increasingly seeking to control worldwide rights. And so long as (streamers and agencies) are trying to do worldwide deals, it is hard for others to make pre-sales.”

“Compared with Sundance, the market in Berlin is more open, diverse and easier to work. Fewer of the films being presented in the EFM are already encumbered with SVOD deals. In Sundance, we always had to triangulate with other players in order to be able to move anything forward,” said Richard Lorber, CEO of North American arthouse distributor Kino Lorber. “This is more democratic. Things are better able to be sold on their individual merits.”

While numerous buyers report that film sellers have become more realistic about the value of North American rights, and have lowered their prices, Hunt says that market power has nevertheless shifted geographically. “After 2008 when the studio labels were collapsing, international became the powerhouse. Now the business has once again become more focused on North America than it was a few years ago. If you don’t get a studio deal, you are looking at one of the eight mid-weight distributors from the U.S. And for them it is all about the scale of their P&A commitment,” said Hunt.

The coronavirus-enforced absence of nearly all Chinese buyers may have accelerated that stateside power shift.

China as a source of silly money for the global movie industry was already slowing down, a reflection of capital and foreign exchange controls, China’s economic and box office slowdowns and the growing success of Chinese movies in China, which make importing films less important.

Significantly, most of the biggest deals reported, or expected, at the Berlin market’s mid-point involve North America, and the global streaming companies.

Netflix was said to be paying a record price for FilmNation and CAA’s movie “The Good Nurse” with Jessica Chastain. Neon, domestic distributor of Oscar-winning Korean hit “Parasite,” snapped up world rights to “The Painter and the Thief,” the Sundance world cinema documentary special jury prize winner. A24 picked up Claire Denis’ next film, “The Stars at Noon,” with Margaret Qualley and Robert Pattinson. FilmNation and CAA were reportedly fielding multiple bids on the Olivia Wilde-directed “Perfect.” Searchlight Pictures, A24 and studios that boast streaming arms, Warner Bros. and Paramount, were said to be in the hunt.

In an age of YouTubers and overnight social media sensations, many buyers seem unsure of what will work for their target audiences — or what will justify those P&A spends. Some may be hedging their bets and buying across a range of genres.

“The market so far has been surprisingly good. It feels like, after a few years of reduced buying activity, some distributors now need films to release again,” said Michael Ryan, partner at GFM Films. “The first couple of days were quiet, and people were complaining that the MGB was empty, but over the weekend it perked up. For some people this really is a two-day market.”

“It was a very active market with buyers from Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia on the lookout for nice packages. Buyers need to fill their pipelines,” said Marie-Laure Montironi at Pathe, which closed big deals on Guillaume Canet’s “Asterix & Obelix, the Silk Road” and Sian Heder’s  “Coda” starring Emilia Jones.

“In these angry times nobody wants depressing movies. Dramas need to have mega-stars to sell. The world needs entertaining movies, like Bruce Willis in an actioner,” one buyer told Variety. AGC sold large numbers of territories on sci-fi actioner “Little America” starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. But others questioned even the bankability of other aging action stars Gerard Butler and Liam Neeson.

Whether “Parasite” has helped North American audiences overcome their hostility to subtitles, and improved prospects for other foreign-language films, remains moot.

“We have felt a definite ‘Parasite’ effect in that more buyers are now looking at Korean movies, and that some are actually tracking the individual cast members from the film,” said Jason Chae of Korean indie Mirovision.

“Since French movies are already some of the foreign films that travel the most, this trend should profit them,” said Anna Marsh, CEO of Studiocanal, which this week sold Anne Fontaine’s Berlinale title “Night Shift” around the world. But others were more hesitant. “Those people who know, know that the euphoria may pass,” said Lorber.

“People have also been talking a lot about global issues — the coronavirus or the American presidential race. We need to be aware of the topics that fascinate the public. We have to think about the political situation, the landscape, and that impacts business decisions,” said Leiner.

The angry mood on the streets of Germany — this week has seen a racially-charged mass shooting in Hanau and protests in Berlin — has been matched by EFM dissatisfaction.

Whether it was new locations for screening rooms, erroneous or missing film and corporate details in catalogs or the mass closure of shops and restaurants in the Arkaden shopping mall that is so central to the Berlinale, change was unsettling for many attendees.

“The myth of German efficiency has been truly exploded this year. In an era when people are cutting markets, cutting the number of staff they take and the days that they attend, that should be a warning to the EFM,” one sales agent complained.

But new opportunities may emerge from the current adversity.

“The impact of the Covid-2019 pandemic on the Chinese film industry is tremendous. Many companies in China are facing financial problems and even bankruptcy. But it is not necessarily a bad thing. The most grounded ones will remain in the market,” said Cai Gongming, president of Road Pictures, the indie Chinese distributor of “Shoplifters” and “Capernaum.” Cai also forecasts that China’s production problems may be a stimulus for co-productions.