Berlin Buyers’ Lament: An Uneven Playing Field In Streaming’s New World Order

By Diana Lodderhose, Nancy Tartaglione

Berlin International Film Festival

After a storm of deals hit Sundance last month with Netflix and Amazon leading the charge, foreign buyers are descending upon the European Film Market — and into uncharted waters — as the independent sector becomes more competitive than ever. There are some hot packages here in Berlin where the mercury is below freezing, but the real temperature-taking will occur over the next few days on what international sales agents and distributors lament is an uneven playing field where the streaming services and hungry studios scoop up worldwide rights — and drive up prices.

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Associated Press

While there’s a level of seriousness and sophistication in the marketplace that wasn’t around five or 10 years ago, those foreign buyers are in murky territory: Still trapped in the oblivion of a dying DVD market where SVOD has yet to catch up, they are increasingly cautious. Yet pressure from the big U.S. players with global tentacles calls on them to be more bullish in the pre-buy game. That’s particularly true as the Ama-Flixes of the world beat out equity financiers to packages.

One international sales agent who works with commercial English-language and European fare says, “It’s only Netflix and Amazon buying. The others, there’s an economic level where they stop.” That goes for the studios, too, this person says. “They stop at a certain level while Amazon and Netflix are buying a seat at the table.”

Frustration among foreign indie buyers is palpable, says Cornerstone Films’ Alison Thompson. “They are certainly anxious but on the other hand they are very risk averse. Everyone is buying fewer movies.”

Good Universe’s Helen Lee Kim agrees. “It’s a real double-edged sword. While the buyers landscape is more conservative than ever, these movies are finding a way to get made. And when indies don’t compete in presales, then it becomes an open-level playing field later on. It’s a real dilemma that the indies are facing as far as pre-buying and it gets tougher when they don’t.”

It doesn’t seem like these contradictions are going away anytime soon. Berlin, a market known for dishing up packages that would historically provide a solid backbone for the distribution business, certainly isn’t short on content this year. But as one buyer says, the question is around whether any of it is solid enough. “There’s some commercial stuff out there, but the question is whether anything will be strong enough theatrically.”

Mahershala Ali - Moonlight.jpeg

Still, buyers are excited about the prospect of new players in the domestic market. Tim League and Tom Quinn’s nascent Neon and the success of A24 recently with Moonlight are helping to buoy the landscape. Foreign buyers, who are increasingly pushing for U.S. theatrical guarantees in their deals, want to see these guys succeed.

Things that are working are distinctive. Take La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight. Anything that feels like a programmer that viewers can easily flick around Netflix for isn’t going to cut it for buyers. Hanway’s Gabrielle Stewart says “anything generic that we’ve seen before or anything that is too easily comped or sits in a spreadsheet just doesn’t engage with audiences.”

The success of breakouts like La La and Moonlight have been a welcome boon for the independent sector. The market is seeing equity driven even further into the business, which is making buyers need to focus and be more aggressive in their bids. It’s this search for distinctive product geared towards specific audiences that is driving all the equity. Producer Rodrigo Teixeira of RT Features, whose Patty Cake$ sold to Fox Searchlight for $10.5M in Sundance, says the challenge is how to be a better content provider: “It’s the only way to survive in the market and talk with the major companies.”

Sierra/Affinity’s Nick Meyer, whose company is coming into Berlin with 11 Oscar nominations, says the pressures on distributors are real. “Everyone putting movies together has to take the entire ecosystem into consideration. You have to have something distinctive and know your audience and how to market something they believe in. Rigor is the expectation.”

Bloom’s Alex Walton sounds a hopeful note. “Last year, these conversations were way more fraught with anxiety, but I think people know the lay of the land a bit clearer now. But no one knows where it’s going. Those deep pocketed players don’t look like they’re going anywhere and they’ll be competing. The films that are on the street in Berlin are there for indie buyers to have their opportunity.”

Foresight’s Mark Damon warns, “I’ve never seen a system in so much turmoil as the film business is today. It’s affecting theater owners, buyers and sellers. Things are going to change dramatically over the next twelve months.”

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