Berlin: Intense Competition For Top-Tier Titles Leaves Indie Buyers Facing Uncertain Future


George Clooney may be in town for the international premiere of Hail, Caesar! that opened the Berlin Film Festival tonight, but it’s his next project Suburbicon that’s getting buyers’ pulses racing here. That pic, with Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Josh Brolin attached, is one of the hottest acquisition titles on the market along with Steven Soderbergh’s hillbilly heist caper Logan Lucky, set to star Channing Tatum and Michael Shannon. With premium content like those two at a, well, premium, indie buyers are prepared to spend big to beat out the intense competition.

Faced with deep-pocketed studios, as well as the likes of Amazon and Netflix acting like studios, however, are the days of the single-territory indie buyer numbered? That is certainly one of the questions being asked in Berlin at this year’s European Film Market, as execs face up to a film biz that is shifting dramatically.

soderberghAside from the Clooney and the Soderbergh, there will be tough competition for any projects that offer the Holy Grail of a genuinely theatrical experience in the marketplace. Hot promos being screened include include Bel Powley-starrer Carrie Pilby, Nacho Vigalongo’s Colossal with Anne Hathaway, and Rob Reiner’s LBJ with Woody Harrelson as the combative U.S. President. Footage is also being shown of Brimstone with Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce and Kit Harington; Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie; Limehouse Golem, from Carol producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen; and interracial love story A United Kingdom starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.

Other titles expected to generate interest from buyers in terms of pre-buys are Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi inflected Anon with Clive Owen; Keira Knightley-starrer Colette; and Xavier Dolan’s all-star English-language debut The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan with Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman, Nicholas Hoult and Harington.

The mild temperatures so far may be indicative of a thaw in the mood of execs cautiously optimistic there is business to be done. After a somewhat lackluster American Film Market, buyers and sellers alike are looking to do business, even if the perennial gripes about the proximity of Berlin to Sundance and the challenges in packaging A-list product remain. There is a growing acceptance of the changing nature of the business, even if people don’t necessarily have the answers yet.

“We’re at a really dramatic turning point for the independent film business,” says Protagonist chief exec Mike Goodridge, who is selling Oren Moverman’s The Dinner with Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall. “Amazon and Netflix are coming in as aggressively as any studio. We have to adapt to that. They are not just deep pockets coming in to cause disruption. This is a permanent way that people are going to watch films.”

Netflix LogoBoth Amazon and Netflix are expected to be factors at this year’s EFM. Last year, Netflix’s only significant acquisition was Henry Cavill-starrer Jadotville, while Amazon film chief Ted Hope was still putting his crew together. A year on, they’re likely to be competing with studio and indie alike with aggressive multi-territory offers. Coming into Berlin, some indie buyers worried projects like Suburbicon or Logan Lucky would get taken off the table pre-market in a multi-territory deal.  Witness the way in recent weeks, Universal swooped aggressively in a pre-emptive move for the Mary Magdalene biopic that Rooney Mara is currently engaged in talks over, and Fox Searchlight recently moved for Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

That, however, does not appear to be the case, with both Bloom’s Alex Walton and FilmNation’s Glen Basner assuring indies they would have a fair crack at those titles. Many indie buyers felt aggrieved by the worldwide deal in Cannes last May that Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals closed with Focus Features despite a number of aggressive indie offers in individual territories. Ultimately, Basner did his job and got a great deal for Ford to make the movie. There does now, according to several buyers who spoke to Deadline, appear to be a desire — if the numbers make sense — for the Soderbergh film to go the indie route this time out.

Wherever those titles do land, one of the biggest questions now facing the independent marketplace is how viable it remains, when faced with studio buyers, Amazon and Netflix — not to mention deep-pocketed multi-territory indies like StudioCanal and eOne — for the traditional model of single-territory distributors.

One such European buyer tells Deadline, “It simply isn’t a business anymore. You have to come in even earlier and end up overpaying to take something off the table. But what if it doesn’t work? What do you do if you’ve spent a lot of money on a film which misses badly?”

Allegiant posterAlready, Euro indies are looking toward consolidation and economies of scale. At the the end of last year, leading indie Italian film companies Eagle Pictures and Leone Film Group inked a pact that will see the two companies jointly release the next two installments in the Divergent series Allegiant and Ascendant, Keanu Reeves’ action sequel John Wick 2, and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge starring Andrew Garfield. The two companies will split equally costs and revenues associated with the release of the four films.

The pact will also see Eagle handle distribution on all future Leone Film Group titles, as well as home entertainment, excluding projects already tied into state broadcaster Rai such as Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Eagle and Leone will also retain the possibility of collaborating on future Leone films, notably some of the projects coming through Leone’s output deals with Lionsgate and DreamWorks.

That kind of collaboration is likely to become more prevalent moving forward.

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