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Coronavirus Concerns, Political Issues Eclipse Movies, Deals at Berlin Film Festival

Gunda Berlin Film Festival
Courtesy of Egil Håskjold Larsen/Sant & Usa

Overshadowed by a grisly, racially motivated shooting in western Germany and the growing pains of new festival leadership, this year’s Berlinale served to illuminate the market dynamics and global issues set to impact the international film and television industry in the run-up to Cannes — provided coronavirus stays away from the Croisette.

The Berlin festival, which ran Feb. 20 to March 1, boasted only a handful of buzzy deals. The upcoming Jessica Chastain- and Eddie Redmayne-fronted “The Good Nurse” reportedly sold in the range of $25 million to Netflix. IFC Films nabbed U.S. rights to Christian Petzold’s fantasy romance “Undine,” while Cohen Media Group took North American rights to Vadim Perelman’s Holocaust drama “Persian Lessons.” Terms of those two deals were not announced.

But few films were as beloved as “Gunda,” a black-and-white documentary about frolicking farm animals. Devoid of voiceover and score, the film titillated critics and buyers alike. “Parasite” distributor Neon snatched North American rights to the Victor Kossakovsky-directed film, which lists Joaquin Phoenix as an executive producer in the Oscar winner’s most on-brand credit to date.

High-profile titles such as “The Good Nurse” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Little America,” which AGC Studios International placed globally with aplomb, breathed some life into an otherwise slow pre-sales market. Generally, buyers are acquiring movies for a few hundred thousand dollars, rather than the millions they once paid, one sales agent lamented.

Regarding art-house fare, Latido Films head of international sales Juan Torres says, “Either you sell well or not at all,” suggesting that P&A costs mostly outweigh potential returns. Thus, companies are tapping soft money and equity to take up the sales slack.

Overall, Berlin’s narrative felt less about movies than about the external forces bearing down on the industry — among them a growing concern around regulation of global streamers, the reckoning of the #MeToo movement and the palpable threat of coronavirus.

The industry woke up to the dangers of COVID-19 at the Berlinale — and how it might impact the Cannes Film Festival, scheduled to run May 12-23. On Feb. 28, Cannes officials said cancellation of the fest was premature. However, privately, executives tell Variety that if the virus escalates into a pandemic across Asia and Europe, it could strongly affect Cannes due to the festival’s usually strong attendance by Chinese and South Korean companies.

Meanwhile, at the European Film Market, discussions centered on proposed legislation that could see European Union member states strive for a more level playing field between broadcasters and streaming platforms by imposing financial and local content quotas on online
services. EU member states have until Sept. 19 to comply.

Doreen Boonekamp, chair of an EU working group on co-productions and former CEO of the Netherlands Film Fund, says the directive is meant to ensure cultural diversity among European filmmakers and that stories will continue to “come from all of us rather than being dictated by an algorithm.”

Asked by Variety how Netflix will navigate the proposed 30% local content quota in Europe, director of international originals Rachel Eggebeen said the business is “well on its way” to building its local content pipeline “organically” across both film and TV.

Of course, as such firms continue to bolster their pipeline in key markets such as Germany, France and Italy, it’s likely more titles will come to Berlin with SVOD attachments in place, similarly to festival bedfellow Sundance.

It was also game on for Time’s Up in Berlin, with figures such as Hillary Clinton and actor Cate Blanchett not shying away from addressing the landmark Weinstein verdict. While the former first lady applauded the outcome and the wider “accounting” of bad behavior, Blanchett told Variety she’s observed a “deepening of lines” between women at work.

The 50/50 for 2020 movement may be some ways away from its eponymous mission, but the verdict hands the campaign sound momentum heading into Cannes, which will be under greater scrutiny than ever to deliver on representation.

Perhaps Time’s Up U.K. chair Heather Rabbatts says it best: “Anybody who has power, whether you’re an awards festival, institute, studio, production company [or] Netflix: Appoint women and people of color, and see what happens.”