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Berlin’s 2021 European Film Market: Surprisingly Solid, if Not Stellar

Petite Maman
Berlin Film Festival

Berlin’s virtual 2021 European Film Market, many companies feared, would be an underwhelming affair. Wrapping today, at least officially, the online event built over this week to finally give cause for much needed optimism. Ten takeaways from this week’s event.

Berlin’s Netflix Film Market

For the last two years, a Netflix panel was the hottest ticket at the Berlinale Series Market Conference. But the U.S. streaming giant, having made signature buys at Sundance, used to keep a lower acquisition profile at the EFM. No longer. This was the year when a streamer finally took over the EFM. Netflix bought two of the hottest tickets at Berlin’s EFM stumping up $18 million for the U.S on Liam Neeson action pic “The Ice Road,” a record U.S. EFM deal, and $15 million for the U.S. and Latin America on Colin Firth starrer “Operation Mincemeat,” from See-Saw and Cohen Media Group. “Streaming deals are a real option for producers and sales companies. There is interest for nearly every commercial title,” said Constantin’s Martin Moszkowicz.

Going Past the Wire, the EFM Shows Strength in Depth  

Just a few days out, the EFM was shaping up as a slimmed-down version of prior editions. Then new hot packages came on to the market, and kept on coming. FilmNation produced Allison Janney comedy “The People We Hate at the Wedding” hit the market on March 2; STXinternational/CAA introduced Annette Bening starrer “Nyad” and Bruce Willis action thriller “Gasoline Alley,” from Highland Film Group, March 4. “In the end the volume of top tier commercial projects available to buyers was comparable to EFM’s past,” said AGC Studios Stuart Ford. Business, he added, was “solid but not stellar.” A presentation next Monday of Eli Roth vidgame inspired “Borderlands” suggests that the EFM – even pitches – will run well into next week.

Bigger Movie Buzz Titles

Most big movies are still in discussion, at least for the bigger markets. That said, buzz titles are emerging. AGC Studios look set to announce sale on “Panopticon” by the weekend, said Ford. Scott Cooper’s Christian Bale starrer “The Pale Blue Eye,” sold by MadRiver, was reportedly currying good buzz. “In Lost Lands,” re-teaming “Resident Evil” star Milla Jovovich and helmer Paul W.S. Anderson, looks a shoo-in for sales. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” one of the best reviewed of Berlin competition films, looks set to clinch U.S. distribution.

Post COVID-19 Optimism 

The main mood, however, was an uplift in optimism. “There is light at the end of the tunnel. Theaters will open (rather later than sooner, but they will),” Moszkowicz said. “Optimism is back. Buyers and sellers are anticipating – I believe rightfully – a post-COVID-19 boom,” said Nicolas Brigand-Robert at Playtime. It isn’t just hope for a post COVID-19 reopenings which is lightening up the gloom. Distributors of big festival films were largely highly impressed by the titles premiering at Berlin, which they hope bodes well for an upbeat Cannes – whenever that may happen.

Arthouse: Star Auteurs Make the Running

In the foreign-language domain, star auteurs drive much of the business, clinching the most spectacular art pic sale at Berlin – Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” sale to Neon – and driving pre-sales, such as Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District,” an IFC Films pick-up. Sales agents representing feature debuts or films by emerging directors had a tougher time of it. “It was more of a festival to reconnect and prepare for the future which we hope will be brighter,” said Clémence Lavigne and Samuel Blanc at The Party Films Sales. ”That said, buyers and festival programmers were really present and the turnout at the virtual market screenings was great, as were our meetings,” they added, having launched a bevy of promising feature debuts at the EFM, notably Brieuc Carnaille’s “Too Close to the Sun.”

U.S. Market Flux

There’s a bigger picture to the Netflix buys, said Ford, a broader dynamic in the U.S. marketplace where traditional theatrical distributors “still face a challenge: Can they commit the kind of minimum guarantee numbers that bigger independent films require from the U.S. for their financing whilst their domestic distribution model is in a period of significant flux?” That’s particularly true, he adds, when it to comes to pre-buys for films that would release in 2022, when there’s still not much visibility on when different audience demos will return to theaters in force. “That’s breeding caution in U.S. buyers circles amongst everyone except the streamers – competitively-speaking their hand has never been stronger.”

Another World: Europe’s Drama Series Boom

When COVID-19 struck, Scandinavia’s REinvent had just made a deal with Nordic major SF Films to represent the whole of its catalog and new films, REinvent’s Rikke Ennis commented at a multi-panel Content Strategies strand of the Berlinale Series Market Conference hosted by Variety international editor Manori Ravindran, which also saw Warner Media drill down on its plans for HBO Max in Europe.

The SF deal had to put on hold as productions were postponed, “But luckily on the international distribution side we had TV series and there we felt a huge appetite especially from streaming platforms, which helped REinvent take up the slack,” she added. Part of the EFM, the Berlinale Series Market still often felt like another world, as producers and sales agents, such as Christophe Riandee at Gaumont, producer of Netflix mega hit “Lupin,” talked about reaching tens of millions of watching households and the end of barriers to foreign-language fiction.

Drama Series’ Production Crux: Empowering Talent

“What we’re obsessed with is to create a home for writers and directors where they know that were going to protect their interests – creative and financial – so that they can make the best show they can achieve, said Riandée, with Ennis in full agreement. “I need other people around me to be good and I need them to be empowered,” said “It’s A Sin” producer Nicola Schindler, in an All3Media hosted session, The Executive Role – Reveals and Revealed.

Berlin Buzz Series

There was a good buzz on pretty well every title in the festival’s Berlinale Series showcase led by Russell T. Davies’ “It’s a Sin,” but taking in two Latin American shows, Gustavo Pizzi’s “The Last Days of Gilda” and Pablo Fendrik’s “Amongst Men,” both of which exploit the exciting creative opportunities of limited short format shows. Also sparking good word of mouth were two series, both created with women, which take Scandi noir to a different place: SVT/DR’s “Snow Angels,” a missing baby thriller from Mette Heeno that focuses on the immense pressures of motherhood, and Cilla Jackert’s “Thin Blue Line,” a recent SVT hit highlighted in an ITV Studios showcase, a cop show that’s more about its characters than their cases.

Pursuing a murder all the way through, Scandi Noir is “incredibly effective programming, but could it be more inclusive? Does every show have to feature a scraggy 65 year old?” producer Erik Barmack, at Wild Sheep Content, suggested recently to Variety. “Couldn’t there be more female skewing Scandi Noir shows, or ones that have more pace or action to them?”

Genre Builds as a Major Mainstream Play

Roughly half the biggest dozen or so movie titles brought onto Berlin’s pre-sales market at its get-go were genre – sci-fi, fantasy or horror – led by “In Lost Lands,” AGC’s “Demonic,” from “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp, Anton’s dystopian sci-fi thriller “Vesper Seeds” and Eli Roth’s “Borderlands” for Lionsgate. “At this market, the movies that are selling best are genre movies, whether it’s thriller, horror, disaster films, or romantic comedies, or smaller films from big auteurs. Films that are in the middle are having a more difficult time luring distributors,” said TrustNordisk’s Susan Wendt. Genre is catnip for platforms – another way that streamers are inflecting film markets.

Geographic Differences 

“European and Latin American distributors bought quite aggressively, but the Asians largely kept their powder dry, perhaps revealing less confidence in a 2022 box office revival that most independent international distributors are relying on,” Ford commented. Why that buying reticence from Asia? Possible other answers: Berlin is primarily a European content market with the more Asian FilMart starting in 10 days; local content is increasingly important in many Asian territories; and, again, the money and the momentum is with the streamers these days, with Netflix, for example, promising to invest $500 million in Korean content.

The Deals

*Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District” sold half of the world’s major territories for Playtime, including a U.S. pick-up from IFC Films.

*Making it a Berlin double, Kino Lorber also pounced on North American rights to Berlin competition contender “Fabian – Going to the Dogs.”

*Foresight Unlimited closed key territories on Gigi Gaston’s adventure thriller “Nine Bullets,” starring Lena Headey.

*By Thursday, Paris-based Totem Films sold out nearly half the major territories in the world on competition contender “Ballad of a White Cow,” the tragedy of two people whose goodness sparks their downfall.

*Cinema Guild announced U.S rights on Wednesday to Hong Sangsoo’s black-and-white “Introduction,” “an airy 66-minute sampler of everything the Korean director’s fans admire,” said a Variety review, which won a screenplay Silver Bear Friday.

*In the biggest art film deal of the market, Céline Sciamma’s MK2 Films-sold competition player “Petite Madame,” which sparked rave reviews, sold to Neon for North America.

*South Korea’s Megabox Plus M sold hostage crisis thriller “The Point Men” to 14 territories led by Japan (Gaga).

*Kino Lorber nabbed North American tights to Burhan Qurbani’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” a hit last year at Berlin.

*On the eve of Berlin, Universal’s Focus Features pre-empted most of the world on the FilmNation-sold “Red Rocket,” from “The Florida Project” director Sean Baker.

Patrick Frater contributed to this article.