The outside temperature here at the Berlin Film Festival is just as icy as ever, but there’s the prospect of some heat with international sales agents and indie buyers slightly more optimistic as things kick off. That’s in contrast to the atmosphere here last year when the EFM got underway right after a storm of deals hit Sundance with Netflix and Amazon leading the charge. At the time, agents and distributors lamented an uneven playing field where the streaming services and hungry studios scooped up worldwide rights, and drove up prices.
No one is suggesting those players are going away, but there’s cautious enthusiasm here after a quietish Sundance and a depressing AFM. One exec chimes in about rivals, “There are a lot of projects that I’m actually excited to see and that hasn’t happened in a long time.” Will they sell here? Leading up to Day One, it’s been a murky proposition and some buyers continue to cite a lack of commercial theatrical prospects. Still, Berlin doesn’t typically throw off the same kind of showy splashes that we see in Sundance or in Cannes, and more so acts as a table-setter for the Riviera.
There are a couple of factors to the shifting attitudes this year — and as the independent business is still on shifting sands. On one hand, the streaming giants’ shadow did not loom as heavily over Sundance last month. There’s anticipation that they’re either going to be more aggressive in Berlin with slots to fill, or so focused on their own productions that offshore buyers will have a better shot at acquiring much-needed product. Netflix, as a number of folks point out, said in October that it is going to put out 80 original films in 2018. But we wouldn’t rule out some international plays here.
On the other hand, and while it may sound picayune, the calendar has played a part in lifting people’s spirits and lessening fatigue. There was less of a mad crunch to tie up packages this year with an extra week distancing Potsdamer Platz from Park City.
In Sundance, activity was muted as a lack of bidding by Amazon, Netflix and Fox Searchlight slowed the pace. Buyers were more cautious after the bidding surrounding films like Mudbound, The Big Sick and Patti Cake$, which sold for eight-figure sums in Sundance 2017.
Yet, in one of the biggest Sundance deals, NEON landed Assassination Nation in partnership with Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO for north of $10M. It’s those kind of creative deals that lead some to argue that disruption has been good for the business, encouraging new domestic players to emerge and tackle challenges in interesting ways. That kind of aggressive blood gives hope to filmmakers which in turn can boost confidence for the overseas indies — and Assassination Nation is high on foreign buyers’ lists.
In other cases, the nature of today’s landscape also means offshore companies are being encouraged to come in earlier in a project’s life cycle if they wish to stay competitive. But as international buyers see monetization in flux in their markets, it creates a challenging environment. Says FilmNation’s Glen Basner, “If they want to pre-buy, they take an inherent risk. The flipside is if you want something you have to compete, which is also very challenging — if not impossible.”
Cornerstone Films’ Alison Thompson sounds a bullish note, seeing evolution in the market. “People have woken up to the fact that high-end TV is here to stay and it’s damn good and we’ve got to make sure the cinematic experience, whatever genre it covers, has to be even better.”