This Berlin Film Festival began with promise. There was the hottest world premiere of the year in the shape of a reclusive billionaire, some whips and a willing debutante. And the foreplay of Sundance, with an avalanche of big-money distribution deals that indicated an appetite for product that surely would be reflected in the new product introduced at Berlin’s European Film Market. By the time the credits rolled on Fifty Shades Of Grey, some in the audience were left wishing for a little more mischief and a little more edge.
Things were fairly flaccid at this year’s EFM, which offered steady business but was hardly orgasmic. Perhaps that was inevitable given the plethora of geopolitical issues factoring into the economic realities of buyers across the world.
Buyers came in to the market against a challenging backdrop of currency woes with the strong dollar, concerns over a possible Grexit, the disappearance of Russia as a dependable pre-sale territory and even gripes over the unusually close proximity of Sundance to Europe’s first major market of the year. Sellers from agencies like CAA basically took their warm clothes right from Park City to Berlin.
Many of the buyers and sellers left having done solid, if unspectacular, business. Even network of the future Netflix failed to capitalize on a splashy entrance that saw it announce plans to launch in Japan and screen an unprecedented four titles in Berlin.
There were hot titles on offer. Sierra/Affinity’s Gold, directed by Stephen Gaghan and starring Matthew McConaughey, virtually sold out with Euro powerhouse Studio Canal leading the way with a splashy multi-territory deal including the UK, France and Germany. Some of the titles, like Birdman star Michael Keaton playing McDonald’s burger chain franchiser Ray Kroc in The Founder, held back domestic distribution rights so there was no real splashy deal like last year’s precedent-setting pact that The Weinstein Company made on Best Picture nominee The Imitation Game.
IM Global did strong international business with the Mel Gibson-directed Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield as WWII army medic Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lionsgate is close to securing a domestic deal on the film, although interestingly its UK division passed on the project’s pricey ask, leaving it up for grabs in a potentially competitive territory.
Sony Pictures picked up a clutch of international territories on Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, to which Martin Scorsese attached his name as exec producer. Acquired territories included Australia/New Zealand, Latin America, Scandinavia, Spain and Eastern Europe. Upstart distributor Broad Green made a major statement for itself as a director-driven prestige distribution company when it acquired the Terrence Malick-directed Knight Of Cups moments before the film made its Berlin premiere. Broad Green made a two-picture deal worth just under $7 million for U.S. rights to that picture and an untitled second star-studded film that is in post. Broad Green then announced a longer-term creative partnership with Malick as the distributor on Voyage Of Time, the epic film narrated by Brad Pitt and others.
Lionsgate also nabbed a domestic deal on Julianne Moore-Ellen Page vehicle Freeheld, which tells the true story of Laurel Hester, a police detective who fought to for equal treatment while diagnosed with cancer.
On the sales front, Lionsgate was quiet, bringing no new notable projects to market, no doubt waiting to unveil their heavy hitters on the Croisette. In fact, attention was already turning by the end of the EFM’s first weekend to Cannes for those in need of content and some razzle-dazzle.
“It’s not a market where there have been a lot of surprises,” said one European buyer who has done solid business at the market. “It all came together so last-minute. All the new projects arrived the same week and we already knew what we wanted to do by the time the market had started.”
This year’s EFM represented the first major international market at which Netflix was present since its ambitious rollout into major European territories such as France and Germany. The SVOD player had four titles screening in Berlin as it seemed keen on planting a flag in the sand for its film ambitions. Better Call Saul; Bloodline, its first original docu-series; Chef’s Table from director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi); and the Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? all played in the Berlinale.
When it came to acquisitions, however, Netflix had something of an underwhelming market, failing, at the time of writing, to have secured major acquisitions. Though Netflix execs confirmed to Deadline it had acquired some content during the market, none of those titles are expected to be headline-grabbers. That seems partly due to continued uncertainty over the role Netflix will come to play in the film space. Will it simply become an alternative pay TV window and work with more traditional distributors or will it secure the loftier ambition of a genuine multi-territory, all rights player?
“If Netflix wants to come in, they have to prove competitive in terms of pricing with an all rights deal and they have to leave some opportunity open for a theatrical window for it to make sense for us today,” said one well-respected and high-profile sales agent. “The reality so far is we’re not seeing them pay huge dollars so we haven’ t really felt any benefit outside of the U.S. when they started.”
The challenges facing Netflix are clear, particularly when dealing with high-profile cinematic titles. Several sales agents complained about what they described as lowball offers, unclear strategy and a lack of clear financial upside in the Netflix model. Given the decline in home entertainment revenues, many distribs are unwilling to lose the revenues offered by SVOD by having them carved out of their deals.
That was one of the reasons the Weinstein Co.’s Quentin Tarantino pic The Hateful Eight did not close deals after its introduction to buyers at last year’s AFM. That pic, which remains THE most-in-demand independent project around remains — officially at least — unsold, although Deadline understands a number of deals are in the process of closing.
Others, however, are in no doubt that Netflix remains a key part of the film business’ evolution.
“There’s no question Netflix will become a major economic force in the international acquisitions marketplace,,” said IM Global founder and chief executive Stuart Ford. “What remains to be seen is where they place themselves in the food chain and how they give films a theatrical run before digital exploitation that could satisfy financiers and filmmakers alike. If their intention is to go straight to SVOD, in the eyes of filmmakers, and the industry as a whole, that would be a challenging scenario for big-budget, commercially and critically attractive films like Hacksaw Ridge.”
Elsewhere, excitement was high in the independent space over the future plans of Amazon Studios under the leadership of Ted Hope with talk of $200 million funds being raised and up to a dozen films a year — “edgy” and “indie” being the operative words – being financed.
It is a measure of just how volatile the film business is right now, with traditional models coming up against the platforms of the future.
“Issues like currency and world affairs, those are largely out of our hands,” said Bloom’s Alex Walton, who also enjoyed a strong market with hot seller Three Seconds directed by Otto Bathurst and produced by Basil Iwanyk. “The biggest challenge we face now is the evolution of windows and how well we navigate them.”
And sometimes, being vanilla can be good for business. Just ask Christian Grey: Fifty Shades’ early box office results are proving anything but limp with Universal reporting record-setting numbers across the world.