European Film Market Puts Polarized Dealmaking in Sharp Relief

Tom Hanks
Everett Collection

As the Berlinale trundles on, the usual joie de vivre of a pre-pandemic film festival is in short supply, and dealmaking out of the virtual European Film Market has felt lopsided.

Sony’s $60 million deal for Tom Hanks’ “A Man Called Otto,” an adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling Swedish-language novel “A Man Called Ove” — which was made into an Oscar-nominated Swedish feature — grabbed headlines early on (Variety understands it boiled down to a bidding war between the studio and Apple), but hasn’t necessarily spawned the usual flurry of deals from Berlin halfway through the festival.

One buyer from a major U.K. distributor says the EFM vibe has felt “muted” for a company of its size, with an absence of broad-appeal product available once “Otto” was snapped up by Sony. “The lack of mainstream commercial packages is frustrating, and only puts more pressure on Cannes needing to deliver something big for all,” complained the source.

Ultimately, the EFM pre-buy packages available — highlights include the Rosamund Pike-fronted pandemic thriller “Rich Flu,” Jonestown Massacre project “White Night” and Evan Rachel Wood WWII drama “All That I Am” — reveal a marketplace that’s increasingly squeezing out the mini-majors, with super-premium product like “Otto” on one end of the spectrum and strong but significantly smaller indie packages at the other end.

But that’s not to say deals aren’t quietly bubbling away, particularly for smaller-scale market packages, as well as gems from the festival’s aggressively independent line-up.

“We’ve been impressed and heartened by the overall optimism and buoyancy of the market, with some super interesting pre-sale packages available, with quality talent behind and in front of the camera, and a fair few excellent completed titles emerging,” said Paul Ridd, head of acquisitions for the U.K.’s Picturehouse Entertainment, who’s been working the market virtually out of London.

Indeed, European sales agents who made the trek to the Berlinale have been pleasantly surprised by the appetite among independent distributors. French sellers were out in force, with MK2, Charades, Gaumont, Wild Bunch and Playtime among the banners attending in person.

Making it worth their while was Italian film promotional entity Cinecittà, which provided flights and accommodation for more than 30 international buyers who, besides seeing a batch of new Italian movies at the fest, also had the opportunity to check out other official selection titles on the big screen.

“Everybody benefitted from it,” said Raffaella Di Giulio of Fandango Film Sales, who is selling veteran Italo auteur Paolo Taviani’s buzzy competition entry “Leonora Addio.”

The Cinecittà buyers — a group including Modern Films (U.K.), Camera Films (Denmark) and Cineart (Benelux) — were instrumental in prompting the EFM to open the very bare Martin Gropius Bau building and make it available for one-on-one meetings, helping to rev up a microscopic de-facto physical market.

Carole Baraton, co-founder of Charades, spent a few days in Berlin before returning to Paris, and packed her days with meetings with arthouse distributors from the continent.

“I think we’ve all been happy and relieved to see that the market is not as depressed as we had imagined and that distributors are looking for sexy packages and movies that will be at Cannes and Venice,” said Baraton.

Charades has been closing deals at a steady pace on “Piggy,” which was just sold to Magnolia, and “Sanctuary” with Margaret Qualley.

“They didn’t come in big numbers and didn’t stay as long as usual but they turned up and it was great to see them in person,” Baraton said.

Fionnuala Jamison, managing director of MK2 Films — who just launched several high-profile arthouse projects at the EFM, including Soudad Kaadan’s “Nezouh” and Koji Fukada’s “Love Life” — said buyers are actively looking at projects from acclaimed directors that will hit the festival circuit in May or September.

The company has Mikhaël Hers’ “The Passengers of the Night” and Carla Simón’s “Alcarràs” playing at the Berlinale. “Compared to last fall, it feels like the mood is more upbeat now,” she said.

Over at Anton Capital, Cecile Gaget, who runs international production and distribution, said EFM buyers have flocked to the banner’s hot new package, “All Fun and Games,” a horror thriller starring Asa Butterfield (“Sex Education”) and Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”).

“We’ve been impressed by the level of offers we’ve received from distributors for this project over the last few days, and we’ve seen some bidding wars in several markets,” said Gaget.

Meanwhile, producers on the ground like Uri Singer, whose Passage Pictures recently wrapped shooting on Noah Baumbach’s Don DeLillo adaptation “White Noise,” have also benefited from a toned-down Berlinale.

“It’s quieter and it’s more selective, so you meet a lot of filmmakers, which is very important,” said Singer, who made the trek from Los Angeles. “They have more time because the market and party people aren’t here. It’s much more accessible. That, for me, as a producer trying to find new filmmakers, is a blessing because otherwise it would be me and 100 other producers, sales companies and studios.”