Berlin Market Takeaways: From Deals to Buzz Titles, Streamers’ New Acquisitive Mode, and an End to Unlikeable Women 

EFM 2023
Credit: Lia Darjes

As the Berlin Festival turns into its final straight, the industry has warmed to a busy, packed European Film Market which at one and the same time has underscored the challenges still facing the international independent film business. 

Following by way of an industry wrap, a dozen takeaways on the 2023 Berlin market, including its Berlinale Series Market, an ever more building proposition at the festival. 

The Verdict

If the European Film Market is anything to go by, broadly, the international movie market is in some ways making a comeback, despite still vastly challenging circumstances. On Thursday, the EFM reported “record results” of a total of over 11,500 market participants from 132 countries. “It was a rather busy market, with no single must-have, but much mid-sized product,” Constantin’s Martin Moszkowicz says of this year’s EFM, noting that Constantin received about 90 project submissions prior to market, “which is a lot.” “There’s been more deals happening at the EFM than at Sundance and we sense a new vibrancy in the international markets,” says Nick Shumaker, at Anonymous Content’s AC Independent.

The Deals

Actual deals though eye-catching were at something of a premium. Word on the market floor is that Vin Diesel starrer “Riddick: Furya,” from Rocket Science, has closed one major market for around $7 million. Prime Video secured all international on the AGC Studios’ “The Order,” with Jude Law and Nicholas Hoult, and Zoe Saldana action-survival pic “The Bluff.” Black Bear Intl. has sold more than half the world on both “Longlegs” and “Fred & Ginger.” “The Riker’s Ghost” has also closed major territory sales.

Jude Law and Nicholas Hoult Getty

Streamer Pivot 

A significant percentage of movie deals done or now closing at Berlin, however, has been with global streamers. Yet relatively few deals to date have closed. 

Multiple factors may be at work here. “There’s a little bit of a slowdown in terms of how much the streamers are commissioning, in terms of original production,” says Moszkowicz. In compensation, however, “in terms of acquisitions, streamers are very active, though some platforms more than others,” he adds. “We see more flexibility than in the past, deals for only certain territories and for only certain windows,” he observes. Expect more streamer deals in upcoming days.  

Nobody Knows Anything and Now Knows Even Less 

Nobody knows anything, screenwriter William Goldman once famously wrote about box office hits. Now, arguably, everybody knows even less. Post-pandemic, big sellers hit Berlin’s pre-sales market as budgets have risen, given competition for across-the board talent with streamers. The only way to green light larger movie projects is through distributors paying prices which factor in theatrical bows. “But nobody know what a theatrical movie is any more,” said one executive. Buyers can’t use pre-pandemic comparisons, given box office is 25%-30% down. And there’s often a significant gap between what sales agents are required to get to green light a movie or satisfy producers and what distributors, given uncertainty, are prepared to pay. That disconnect fed through the whole of Berlin trading.

Straight is the Gate

Notably, the biggest movies that have sold to date are for the most part safe theatrical propositions: Save for “Fred & Ginger,” a musical biopic, all other top sellers are elevated genre: Thrillers with stars – “Longlegs” has Nicolas Cage, and “The Riker’s Ghost” has Liam Neeson – and classy directors.

“It was a good market internationally, and domestically only for a certain kind of movie, like director-driven genre. But drama is still in trouble,” says Shumaker. “If you have solid, solid screenplays with recognizable actors, solid directors and titles with TV value, made for $20 million-$30 million, you should be safe,” Moszkowicz adds. 

Buzz Films

In consequence, Berlin business this year looks eminently back-ended: Sellers reported a surge in business in the EFM’s last two days. Yet multiple deals look like they will only close after the festival proper. “I think agents have learned that a deal doesn’t need to happen overnight for it to be the right deal with the right distributor. The cadence may have shifted but I have no doubt that we’ll be reading about U.S. deals on a variety of packages, promos and finished films in the coming days,” says IFC Films’ Scott Shooman. Charades, for instance, reported Wednesday it was in negotiations to close multiple territories, including the U.S. on “Disco Boy.” Other films currently closing deals: “Reality,” with Sydney Sweeney, from MK2, UTA and WME; revenge thriller “Femme,” from Anton; Phoebe Dynevor-starrer “Wichita Libra,” from Mister Smith Entertainment; and Latido Films’ “All the Names of God,” from Daniel Calparsoro.

Femme Courtesy of Agile Films

Waiting for the Big One: Cannes

Another reason for slow Berlin trading… Of festival films, multiple titles impressed – Paul B. Preciado’s “Orlando, My Political Biography,” Tatiana Huezo’s “The Echo,” Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory,” just to name three. But the Berlin festival itself this year didn’t pack many films big enough to drive big business, distributors were saying. Many big art film purveyors may also be holding back their biggest 2023 plays for this year’s Cannes festival: distributors, knowing that, are reluctant to step up to the plate at Berlin. Cannes, however, should be a mother of all festivals, or bigger.

A More Efficient Marketplace

The international market remains much more challenging than a decade back. But there’s still cause for optimism. “What’s interesting is how the Hollywood talent agencies have learned to work together with traditional international sales agents to use the platform of the market to launch high-end specialty films alongside more commercial titles,” says Sony Pictures Classics’ Dylan Leiner. “And there’s really no lag time between when domestic and international buyers see and consider projects. The timelines for financing and selling films is more global and more overlapping than it’s ever been.” There’s also upside in downturn. “Because it’s a much more challenging market, people are being much more judicious and selective about the kinds of titles they’re acquiring, which has to have a positive impact on the quality of material that’s being put out there,” says Mister Smith Entertainment’s David Garrett. 

Buzz Series

The Berlinale Series Market fairly brimmed with admired titles this year. Most, both at project stage and among finished shows, were European. With smaller shows like Norway’s “The Architect” among this year’s discoveries, as noted by Berlinale Series’ Julia Fidel, stories with “reasonable” budgets are being eyed by commissioners – Spanish political thriller “The Chauffeur’s Son,” directed by Isaki Lacuesta, could be another example. As many others titles this year, this series, based on a dark, disturbing true story, could also satisfy a growing appetite for historically flavored drama, often set in a near past that helps explain the present. Ada Solomon’s dynamic, dark “Export Only” bodes well for upcoming shows from Romania, with high-profile local talent also attached to HBO Max’s “Spy/Master,” co-produced by Cristian Mungiu’s Mobra Films. “We are far from perfect – we are like Norway 25 years ago,” said Solomon during a presentation. “But we are natural born pioneers; we did it with Romanian cinema and we are determined to do it with series too. We have the stories and the talent, you have the know-how and the resources. Join us – I think it’s a fair trade.”

Spy/Master Courtesy of HBO Max

Spend on Content to Decline, but Unscripted, Biographical and Historical Dramas On the Rise

As noted by Ampere Analysis’ Guy Bisson, in an opening Berlinale Series Market panel, as streamers fixate on profit, not landgrab subs growth, the spend on content will “flatten and slightly decline,” this year, most significantly in the U.S. Licensing and syndication modes, in contrast, are making a comeback. Unscripted – documentary, entertainment and reality ­– is also on the rise. There’s a growing interests moreover, in biographical and historical drama: “I have never binged anything the way I binged ‘Yellowstone,’” admits B-Reel Films’ Ulf Synnerholm. “I have hardly slept. I will buy a house in the U.S. now, and a horse.” 

No More ‘Unlikeable’ Women: They are Understandable and Relatable

Complex, dark, ambitious female characters are taking over new shows, from Berlinale Series winners “The Good Mothers” and “The Architect” to Australia’s “Bad Behaviour,” produced by Matchbox Pictures. “It’s been a hard road to get to that point of actually being able to show female characters as we really exist in the world,” says producer Amanda Higgs. “I’ve felt so tired in my career of the idea that women have to be ‘likeable’ or ‘unlikeable.’ I think what we need to be is understandable and relatable, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. Move away from those two words specifically, because I don’t think we describe men like that.” 

Fresh Storytelling and Fresh Faces Bring New Life to Old Genres

Another takeaway from the Berlinale Series Market: As the market chases greater diversity, younger audiences are also on everyone’s mind – even when it comes to traditional, usually older-skewing genres like crime, with All3mMedia Intl.’s Stephen Driscoll underlining the need for “fresh storytelling and fresh faces,” as seen in “Mystery Road: Origin.” This is also seen in “The Gymnasts,” with its coming-of-age themes, or upcoming Paramount + anthology series “Zeit Crime,” based on a popular podcast and helmed by four young directors. “We are developing a couple of projects and our writers’ room is mostly composed of Gen Z and millennials,” says Solomon, fresh off presenting the well-received “Export Only” at the BSM’s Co-Pro Series, in which a mother and a daughter are stuck in a town dominated by violent teens, running a drug trafficking network. 

AVOD, FAST Looks to Science-Fiction 

While stories set in the future – or tackling the climate crisis, like Finnish-Norwegian “Tipping Point” – are currently trending, so is science fiction (alongside anime, horror and music), favored by AVOD/FAST viewers and currently commission friendly, suggested Bisson. But they are also likely to change. “We see a real explosion in advertising-supported streaming. Dark, edgy, serialized shows work well on a streamer. But if you put it on an advertising-supported platform, you are in the middle of something intense, and then all of a sudden: ‘Crackers! Toothpaste!’ It ruins it,” observes Dean Devlin, in Berlin with “The Ark.” “As we see these platforms evolve, they are opening up for different kinds of shows.”