Indie Sales Agents Headed to Berlin With New Strategies for Virtual European Film Market

Berlin Film Festival 2021 Im Your
Christine Fenzl/Berlinale / Graham Bartholomew/STX / Madonnen Film

After Sundance, which saw sustained dealmaking activity on select titles, the film industry is gearing up for the virtual European Film Market, incorporating industry and press screenings of Berlin Film Festival’s program. With little sense of when the theatrical business can restart across the world, anxiety in the independent sector is edging up, added to the growing competition from streaming giants.

The EFM, the world’s second-biggest film market, is a place where sales agents traditionally launch movies with strong theatrical appeal, and this year they will need to double up on their marketing efforts to trigger the interest of distributors who are either cash-strapped or overburdened with postponed releases.

“We’re in a ruthless world with new variants,” says Memento’s Emilie Georges. “The more we advance the thicker is the fog. The challenge is to deploy enough efforts to make films exist within the small window of opportunity we have during virtual festivals.”

The virtual format has democratized the festival experience and has forced sales agents to communicate differently.

“We have to work on the marketing earlier than ever before and work closely with film publicists to ensure that select journalists have watched films prior to the world premiere and get filmmakers involved,” Georges says. “The role of publicists has been crucial through the pandemic to get the attention of the media and distributors.”

The Berlinale festival, meanwhile, is a showcase of some of the most daring and sometimes even experimental movies that aren’t particularly streamer-friendly.

“Not every movie will prove as appealing on a computer screen as in a movie theater,” says Films Boutique’s Jean-Christophe Simon, who just acquired the Berlinale competition title “Mr. Bachmann and His Class.”

“For some festival films that are more aesthetically challenging or unconventional, the virtual format might be difficult,” he says.

The executive adds that the fact that the Berlinale will allow journalists to review movies will be essential for the kinds of movies he’s selling.

“Berlin Film Festival’s decision to maintain a festival structure with virtual screenings of film in competition with a jury, and the possibility for journalists to watch movies will contribute to building momentum around world premieres and get distributors excited,” Simon says.

Georges says Cannes last year had disappointed with its decision to not show films in the official selection to the press.

“Festivals are meant to be an echo chamber and a label without the echo chamber is like a wet cannonball,” says the executive.

With Berlin not holding press conferences or arranging junkets, the onus will fall on the sales agents to create anticipation for their films’ online premieres, says Dirk Schürhoff at Beta Cinema, which has Maria Schrader’s “I’m Your Man” in Berlin’s competition section.

From a buyers’ perspective, the virtual format can have some advantages. “Virtual screenings are not a substitute to watching films on a big screen but there is a purity of experience that’s not falsely elevated by an audience reaction,” says Dylan Leiner at Sony Pictures Classics.

An audience reaction such as a standing ovation in Berlin and Cannes can affect the sales process and lead to bidding wars, he adds.

Although SPC will be dealing with a slate of postponed releases, notably “The Father,” when theaters reopen in major markets, Leiner says the company still had “plenty of room” to acquire new “director-driven” movies and projects “that can work theatrically” at “whatever stage.”

“We didn’t buy any films at the virtual Toronto where we normally buy; we didn’t buy at the AFM; we only bought one film in Sundance [‘Jockey’], where we usually buy two or three movies,” Leiner says.

These days, the size of SPC’s lineup averages 15 titles compared with 20 or 22 before.

But the lack of visibility is difficult for independent projects and many of them will probably not get made, Georges says.

“When the financing is dependent on pre-sales it’s difficult to move forward for everyone. The question is ‘who will put the money in now?'”

She says streaming services are not that interested in foreign-language auteur films or will take one once in a while for a specific territory.

“It’s not on platforms that we can count on for auteur films, neither for library films nor for new movies,” says Georges, who sold Asghar Farhadi’s new film to independent distributors worldwide.

Memento did have a positive experience at Sundance with “Luzzu,” a small film from Malta that competed at the fest and lured many distributors following stellar reviews.

“We received many offers from around the world. Prices are lower than usual, but we have to be there for distributors who are motivated. They want to be ready when theaters reopen and the activity picks up.”

“The key to get out of this limbo is to get a date for the reopening of theaters,” Anton’s Cecile Gaget says. “Once we have that, distributors will be ready to step back in with optimism because they have faith in audience’s appetite for moviegoing.”

She cites the example of Poland, where theaters recently reopened with strong attendance. “Even if they didn’t have strong releases, they pre-sold everything. People in Europe can’t wait to return to theaters,” Gaget says.

She says the U.S. market was particularly dynamic on the acquisition front despite the pandemic. On thriller “Naked Singularity,” starring John Boyega, “we got 10 offers from the U.S.,” Gaget says.

Despite the time difference, Asian buyers and sellers are keen to participate at the EFM.

Finecut’s Suh Young-joo says: “We still need markets. They focus attention on things at a given time. Virtual markets mean we have fewer meetings [than in a physical one]. But we simply discuss with buyers more, both before and after the market meeting.”

Golden Scene’s Felix Tsang says: “We now keep up with clients year-round, but by calling something a market helps to concentrate the mind for a few days. We like the market time frame, not the infrastructure.”

James Ross at Lightning Entertainment says: “A year ago we were quite wary of virtual markets. Now they are looking like an advantage. Going to many [markets] was difficult and expensive. New ones are more affordable. And now I can be in more than one place at a time.”

Miriam Cheung at Emperor Motion Pictures says: “I enjoy traveling and meeting with people, and believe that traditional trade markets will revive [once travel is possible again].”

“I’ve really enjoyed how nimble the independent business has been able to be during this time,” says HanWay Films’ Gabrielle Stewart, citing Sia’s “Music.” Within three weeks of the film being picked up for Latin America, for example, it had been released.

“I appreciate the spirit of entrepreneurship that is going on,” she adds, pointing to Bolivia and Chile, where the distributor gave the film a virtual cinema release, with screenings programmed to start daily at 8 p.m.

Talent has embraced the new normal, making themselves available for remote presentations to press and buyers, and promoting their films in various ways. For instance, Paul Schrader launched the first still from HanWay’s “The Card Counter” on his Facebook account.

Many distributors are holding titles back from release, Schürhoff says, and that will add to the competition when theaters do reopen in the places under locked down. In territories such as Germany, there are already too many films being released theatrically, says Andreas Rothbauer at Picture Tree Intl.

In such a crowded environment, distributors need to turn theatrical screenings into events, says Julia Weber at Global Screen. She points to the example of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” whose release in France was accompanied by a live discussion with the author of the book on which the film is based.

For some independent players the temptation is to skip theatrical and go the direct-to-digital route, either selling worldwide rights to a streamer, as Picture Tree did with “What We Wanted,” or, for distributors, to launch on their own platforms or across multiple VOD outlets. Rothbauer notes that the sophistication of the streaming giants in promoting their content is a “wakeup call for us all,” while Stewart also flags the great effort that streamers put into awards season campaigning.

In the transition to digital, “coronavirus is an accelerator,” Rothbauer adds. In some territories, he says, subsidies are tied to a theatrical release, although some funders are showing flexibility, and the logic of the release windows are being increasingly questioned.

There are plenty of challenges ahead, Stewart says, such as the additional costs to budgets due to COVID-19 measures, and the difficulty in holding on to talent when production schedules are in flux, and bigger paychecks are on offer from blockbusters and drama series.

Another issue is that the streaming giants are increasingly doing deals with producers, bypassing the sales agents and the distributors, Weber says. This is pushing sales agents to board projects at script stage.

A further threat to the independents is the prospect of the European Union revisiting the idea of enforcing a single market for digital rights, which would destroy territoriality in the bloc.

“Sometimes it feels like we are dancing on a volcano,” Rothbauer says.

“It has been a difficult time for a lot of independent distributors due to the lockdown, etc., and the uncertainty,” says Dave Bishop at Protagonist Pictures, but he remains upbeat. “Once things open up there will be a tremendous appetite to get back out and watch films as part of a collective experience.”

In a fragmented and competitive environment, films that are “timely, fresh and original” stand out, Bishop says.

”I feel there will always be room in the marketplace for bold storytelling, and new voices in independent film.”

The independent film community probably won’t be able to gather again until Cannes in July, although some fear it may not happen until later, such as Venice or Toronto.

Weber says she dreamed recently that she was at a party at the American Film Market in Santa Monica with her business friends. “We were really happy that coronavirus was over, and we could enjoy life again,” she says.