It could hardly be otherwise. The collateral damage from COVID-19 — theater shutdowns, release logjams and pushed-back production schedules — is still taking its toll on the international business.
“My sense is that there are relatively few packages of substance launching in this market, although there’s expected to be a little flurry of launch activity over the next few days,” says AGC Studios’ Stuart Ford.
But a clutch of higher-rollers, or at least high-profile titles, will still hit the market.
In the European Film Market’s biggest swing, FilmNation has announced “In Lost Lands,” re-teaming “Resident Evil” star Milla Jovovich and helmer Paul W.S. Anderson, from a story by “Game of Thrones” novelist George R.R. Martin.
AGC Studios has firmed up Shailene Woodley and Anthony Mackie for “Panopticon,” a thriller about the U.S. private prison system produced with Scott Free and helmed by “Narcos” director Andrés Baiz.
“It’s the kind of commercial, Hollywood-talent-heavy package that buyers are always looking for,” says Ford.
Other star-powered films include Gosling heading “The Actor,” being sold by Endeavor; Deneuve starring in Studiocanal’s drama “Peaceful”; and Penn playing opposite Tye Sheridan in paramedics thriller “Black Flies,” again from FilmNation.
Also on the market: Christian Bale and director Scott Cooper (“Hostiles”) re-team on historical murder mystery “The Pale Blue Eye,” sold by MadRiver. For Embankment, Lenny Abrahamson will direct Jim Broadbent in “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”; and Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman headline Zach Braff-directed “A Good Person,” from Rocket Science.
Of foreign-language films, Claire Denis’ “Fire” — sold by Wild Bunch and Anton, now in post and starring Juliette Binoche — scores high marks for potential arthouse appeal.
Multiple new projects are genre titles, from AGC Studios “Demonic,” a supernatural thriller from “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp, to Anton’s dystopian sci-fi thriller “Vesper Seeds” and Eli Roth’s adaptation of sci-fi videogame “Borderlands” for Lionsgate.
But the EFM still looks to be highly contained. “A lot of upcoming production activity that in more normal times could have begun shooting in the first half of the year and so would have been scurrying to make Berlin pre-sales is simply not going to happen until the second half of the year because of COVID-19 challenges – that production lag will likely have some dilutive effect on the EFM,” says Ford.
Save for standout exceptions, dealmaking is expected to be slow. Two key issues prescribe buyer caution, Constantin’s Martin Moszkowicz says.
Distributors already face an acquisition logjam. Constantin itself, for example, has 18 movies awaiting release over the next 12 months, plus another five to six projects that will go into production during that period.
In such a context, says Moszkowicz, ”a lot of the movies that were sold last year in Cannes and the AFM have not been made and possibly will not be made for the time being due to COVID-19 restrictions, no insurance, the U.S. domestic situation. A lot of distributors are asking: ‘If I buy something, is it really going to get made?’”
Compounding uncertainty, movies are being sold to international distributors, then flipped back to streamers on a worldwide basis.
When it comes to launching projects, “we need to go to market with filmmakers and cast attached with a shooting schedule in place to best afford our clients the opportunity to plan,” says Studiocanal’s Chloé Marquet.
Titles that are finished, or at least in post-production, will have a distinct advantage when it comes to sales. So buyers are likely to pay more attention than ever to completed festival-skewing art fare. Here, Celine Sciamma’s “Petite Madame,” robot romcom “I’m Your Man,” with Dan Stevens, and “Ballad of a White Cow,” from Iran’s Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam, are firing up buzz in Berlinale competition.
Amidst such uncertainty and caution, sales executives are yet finding cause for optimism.
Films that originally may not have been conceived for a substantial theatrical release “are suddenly finding they have the run of the house in territories in which theaters are open. They can do very nicely,” says David Garett at Mister Smith Entertainment, who is introducing comedy horror whodunnit “Werewolves Within,” an IFC Films U.S. pick-up, at Berlin.
Beginning at the virtual Toronto, “we’ve seen a material sea change in international markets’ buying requirements,” adds Ford.
That comes from longstanding U.S. releasing shackles — requiring films to have a certain minimum size of U.S screen count or traditional post-theatrical windowing — being loosened or discarded.
“Given the huge changes going on in U.S. theatrical releasing patterns, it’s been a necessity for international buyers to be more flexible if they want to access an already thinning product pipeline, and that newfound flexibility is oiling the dealmaking wheels,” Ford says. “I think it’s an overdue market trend that’s probably here to stay. The genie isn’t going back into the bottle,” he adds.
COVID-19, on the eve of Berlin at least, looked in much of the world to be on the wane.
“I deeply believe that people will want to return to the big screen experience; where we laugh, cry and get scared together and spend time with our families — we can escape together,” says Studiocanal’s Anne Cherel, pointing to traditional buyers’ enthusiasm for Studiocanal and Working Title’s new romantic comedy “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”