As the virtual European Film Market officially gets underway Monday, there are multiple hot-button topics reverberating behind the scenes.
It starts with the growing frustration felt by a number of international buyers who are unhappy about being unwound by sales firms and packaging agents from high-profile movies in favor of streamers.
Most industry we spoke with ahead of EFM are frustrated one year into the wearying pandemic, so a level of anxiety and angst is to be expected from theatrical distributors who have been at the sharp end of Covid.
But there are also specific complaints. A number of these dealmakers tell us they are frustrated about being “dangled” enticing projects (such as Emancipation), only for them to be sold to streamers after they’ve spent time and effort putting in bids and generating heat for the packages.
Even more frustrating to them, we are told, is when they help a movie get financed through pre-sales and then it’s pulled from under their feet at the eleventh hour, as happened on The Trial of the Chicago Seven, and in their minds, most egregiously, on Sundance hit Coda, which was pledged to dozens of indie buyers years ago but was suddenly sold to Apple for world rights in a huge Sundance deal that blindsided many.
“Coda was the last straw,” one veteran buyer told us. “We are the ones left with fewer movies in our pipeline. The business is hanging by a thread so we need to take back some control. We’re at a cross-roads and we won’t do the tap dance just to wake up the streamers any more.”
Multiple Coda buyers dug in their heels and refused to relinquish the project to Apple. We’re told compromises should be reached in most territories, however, with indies holding onto first-window rights in some cases.
Buyers are most worried about a scenario in which sellers and packagers insist across the board on so-called “buy-back clauses” in contracts allowing a film to be flipped to a streamer for a kill fee only in the region of 10%. The specter of such a clause was something we first reported on back at Cannes 2019, but the issue has steadily grown in prominence with the rise of the streamers. Some foreign buyers we’ve spoken with want to protect themselves from such a move by introducing clauses for much higher kill fees, guarantees of domestic theatrical distribution and the ability to negotiate directly with producers as needed.
There is mobilization between distributors in a way we haven’t seen for some time, though some are frustrated they don’t have more institutional support from trade bodies such as the Independent Film & Television Alliance. We’ve even seen a letter drafted by a collection of buyers which sets out how and why they won’t sign contracts with a pre-established kill fee. The letter, which is said to have support from dozens of key companies, was meant to be sent last week but has been held up by legal vetting.
The atmosphere is charged and some negotiations over the weekend were spicier than usual, we are told.
While buyers are concerned about something that has happened a handful of painful times becoming the norm, sellers and packagers we speak to insist that there have been specific contextual reasons for each case and that post-pandemic negotiations should return to a closer version of what came before.
One leading international seller poured cold water on the suggestion of blanket buy-back clauses, a sentiment also echoed to me by packaging agents: “Buy-back clauses are not fundamental parts of our contracts and I don’t see that becoming a thing. To do such a thing across the board could be construed as collusion. It’s always a case-by-case basis.”
As at most painful junctures, talking will likely be the cure.
A prominent U.S. sales agent and financier told us: “I don’t see this as a moment of crisis. It’s a moment of opportunity to see what isn’t working and how we can address that. Sabre rattling won’t help. Let’s sit down and work it out productively. People need to take a step back. We’ve always worked things through successfully together. I hope we can move into a productive conversation whereby we can solve these complex things. Hopefully, we can get the stakeholders to the table so we can arrive at a fair way to transact.”
Another high-profile seller sees change and hope on the horizon: “We’ve launched six movies this year and only one has gone to a streamer. Everything else has gone to the indies. We enjoy that ratio and enjoy what the independent distributors bring to the table — it’s often better. But it’s true there are different models to be investigated. Perhaps we’ll arrive at a position where buyers take equity positions in movies. I personally believe there will be a raging theatrical market in the second half of this year. We’re already seeing some great numbers in China and Australia/NZ.”
While the distribution business thrives on loyalty, long-standing relationships and collaboration, like all industries, there are also competing interests and leverage-plays at almost every turn.
Ultimately, money talks. If a streamer wants to blow away the opposition with an offer well over the odds, then that is going to be the direction the market will shift. Filmmakers will rarely turn that down. Especially during a pandemic when the streamers offer the only viable way to screen.
This isn’t a black-and-white issue by any means. The market is more fluid and dynamic than ever thanks to the multitude of buyers and shifting viewing habits. Indies continue to acquire many of the market’s most exciting movies, and in the past some of those properties would have been gobbled up by traditional studios before they even got to market. It should also be noted that a movie like Chicago 7 had to go out via a streamer if it was to hit before awards season got underway. The producers had little choice if they wanted their movie to be seen in 2020 and ride the wave of various social justice movements.
“Sometimes indies are happy when a streamer will take over their movie,” added one packaging agent. “It does go both ways. Indies are happy to get a kill fee if the movie isn’t great.”
Another wrinkle to consider is how much more difficult it is for indie movies to get Covid insurance during the pandemic. Studio-backed projects have the muscle to cover insurance, which provides another layer of certainty for filmmakers.
Another talking point coming into the EFM has been the market’s receptivity, or lack of receptivity, to controversial directors and stars in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
We broke news 10 days ago that filmmaker Brett Ratner was lining up a return to directing on a Milli Vanilli biopic to be sold by Millennium. However, just days after its launch, and following some high-profile denunciations on social media, Millennium was off the movie and it was no longer an EFM proposition.
Behind the scenes, we are aware that the mere association of the project with the market caused concern among EFM organizers. The Berlinale is probably more sensitive to PR missteps following the exposure last year of founding director Alfred Bauer as a Nazi enabler.
And yet, controversial figures remain at this year’s EFM. Despite iconic French actor Gerard Depardieu being charged with rape and sexual assault last week – a charge he vigorously denies – the actor remains attached to star in two French pre-sales titles in the market.
“I wouldn’t have even read the script,” one female buyer told us about the Milli Vanilli project. “How tone deaf can you be? You need to behave if you want a career today. Gerard Depardieu will also suffer from that backlash,” they warned.
As for the projects themselves, buyers we’ve spoken with are relatively sanguine about the films available, even if some have questioned depth. “It’s the best we can expect from a Covid EFM,” one buyer told me.
There’s a healthy mix of new packages and re-imagined scripts and there are plenty of A-Listers on show. Deals will be done and records could be set. Among the highlights are Daisy Ridley thriller The Marsh King’s Daughter, Ryan Gosling pic The Actor, Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Christian Bale-starrer The Pale Blue Eye, Tina Fey-Jon Hamm comedy Maggie Moore(s), and Brit book adaptation The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In the big-canvas category there is Eli Roth’s video game adaptation Borderlands with Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jack Black -– we hear the film is being budgeted north of $150 million — and Paul W S Anderson fantasy-adventure pic In the Lost Lands. For genre fans, Neill Blomkamp’s Demonic will be a hot ticket.
Most markets throw up their share of quirky prospects but this EFM stands out.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest-budget prospects at the EFM (initially priced in the $100M range) is the Robbie Williams biopic Better Man from The Greatest Showman director Michael Gracey. We understand that pop star Williams will be portrayed by a CGI monkey in the film. “It’s bananas,” one buyer wise-cracked.
Among other idiosyncratic movies on sale is Kiwi comedy Nude Tuesday, which is shot entirely in “gibberish” with two deliverable sets of subtitles. Say what?
This is the EFM’s first taste of a virtual event. Little did the industry imagine a year ago that Berlin 2020 would be their final physical get-together in more than a year.
Buyers and sellers we speak with are getting used to the rhythms of the virtual market but still yearn for an in-person get-together. The hope was that Cannes in July could provide that succor. However, given the slow vaccine rollout in France, ongoing travel restrictions and the high rate of infection in most western countries, that prospect is increasingly uncertain. Industry expectations are growing that the Cannes festival may need to postpone until later in the year but that a Cannes market may remain as an online event over the summer. Cannes was unavailable to confirm or deny these rumors.
EFM Hot Pics
The Actor – Ryan Gosling will star in and produce this adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s hardboiled novel Memory. He’ll play New York actor Paul Cole, who is beaten and left for dead in 1950s Ohio. Stripped of his memory and stranded in a mysterious small town, Paul struggles to get back home, piece together and reclaim the life and identity he’s lost. Duke Johnson is directing. CAA Media Finance and Endeavor Content are co-repping U.S. rights, and Endeavor Content is handling international sales.
Places, Please – Meryl Streep is leading this love letter to Broadway from Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Michael Cristofer. Pic will shoot in the summer in New York and follow a successful stage actress whose confidence is challenged ahead of a new role. CAA Media Finance is repping domestic with FilmNation on international.
Better Man – The Greatest Showman’s Michael Gracey is helming this unconventional biopic of Robbie Williams. Film will chronicle Williams’ ascent, exploring the experiences that made him who he is, and the demons he battled both on and off the stage as he became a huge star on the back of hits like Angels. CAA Media Finance is handling domestic and Rocket Science is on international.
The Whale – Darren Aronosfky has set Brendan Fraser to star in his next movie The Whale, with Samuel D. Hunter adapting from his 2012 play of the same name. The play followed a 600-pound recluse who is doggedly eating himself to death. A24 has world rights.
The Marsh King’s Daughter – Daisy Ridley will lead the cast of this adaptation of the hit psychological-thriller novel. Neil Burger has been set to direct. Ridley will star as Helena, a woman living a seemingly ordinary life, but hiding a dark secret: her father is the infamous “Marsh King,” the man who kept her and her mother captive in the wilderness for years. CAA Media Finance is handling U.S. rights; STX will distribute in the UK, Ireland and India.
Borderlands – Eli Roth is helming this adaptation of the popular video game, with cast including Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Jamie Lee Curtis. Film is set on the abandoned fictional planet of Pandora where people search for a mysterious relic. Lionsgate has rights.
Black Flies – Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan will star in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s thriller about lifesaving paramedics and the toll the job takes on them. FilmNation is handling international sales and Open Road has pre-bought U.S. rights.
The Pale Blue Eye – Christian Bale and Scott Cooper will make their third film together with this adaptation of the Louis Bayard novel about the attempt to solve a series of murders that took place in 1830 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. CAA Media Finance and Endeavor Content are co-repping domestic distribution rights, with MadRiver handling international sales.
White Bird: A Wonder Story – Helen Mirren and Gillian Anderson are fronting this companion film to 2017 hit Wonder. Ariella Glaser and Orlando Schwerdt have also been cast in lead roles while Bryce Gheisar is set to reprise his role as Julian from Wonder. Marc Forster is directing. The film follows Julian Albans, the bully who left Beecher Prep, who is visited by his Grandmère from Paris and is transformed by her remarkable story of compassion and courage. Lionsgate oversees rights.
Lives In Secret – Charlotte Gainsbourg and Hugh Bonneville lead this spy thriller from Resident Evil producer Jeremy Bolt. Paris-based Other Angle is handling sales.
Blueback – Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell and Eric Bana are starring in this Australian family drama about a child who befriends a magnificent wild blue groper while diving. When Abby realizes that the fish is under threat, she takes inspiration from her activist Mum, Dora, and takes on poachers to save her friend. Robert Connolly is directing, reuniting with Bana after The Dry. Roadshow Films will release in Australia and New Zealand, with HanWay Films handling rights for the rest of the world.
Panopticon – Shailene Woodley, Anthony Mackie and Jacob Latimore lead the cast of this Andres Baiz-directed thriller that will shoot in Mexico this summer. Woodley plays Chase, an ambitious young Wall Street trader who seizes upon a hot investment opportunity in PCC Correctional, a private prison group racking up huge profits. AGC is fully financing, with AGC International and CAA Media Finance launching worldwide sales.
Demonic – District 9 filmmaker Neill Blomkamp quietly shot this supernatural horror during the pandemic. Details have been kept under wraps but AGC studios produced and will screen for buyers at EFM. The pic shot in British Columbia last summer and features an up-and-coming cast.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry – Jim Broadbent will lead the cast of this adaptation of Rachel Joyce’s bestselling novel about an ordinary man who has passed through life, living on the sidelines, until he goes to post a letter one day…and just keeps walking. Hettie Macdonald (Normal People) will direct. Embankment is handling sales.
Maggie Moore(s) – John Jamm and Tina Fey star in this black comedy from filmmaker John Slattery. The film takes place in a dusty desert town where nothing ever happens, as a police chief is suddenly faced with the back-to-back murders of two women with the same name. Gersh, Endeavor Content and CAA Media Finance are repping domestic. EC is overseeing international sales.
Fire – With her upcoming pic The Stars at Noon delayed by the pandemic, Claire Denis pivoted to shooting this French love-triangle story starring Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. The film is about a woman caught between two men – her longtime partner and his best friend, her former lover. Wild Bunch International and Anton are co-handling sales.
Infinite Storm – Naomi Watts stars with Sophie Okonedo, Billy Howle, Denis O’Hare and Parker Sawyers in the new film from Polish helmer Małgorzata Szumowska (Never Gonna Snow Again). This one is based on the true story of Pam Bales (Watts), a mother, nurse and mountain guide, who was on a solitary trek up Mount Washington when she got caught in a blizzard, leading to a daring rescue of a stranger (Howle) as both nightfall and the storm bear down on them. Bleecker Street recently pre-bought U.S. rights while Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions is handling international.
A Good Person – Morgan Freeman and Florence Pugh star for director Zach Braff in this movie about a woman whose life falls apart after she is involved in a fatal accident. CAA Media Finance is repping domestic, with Rocket Science on international.
I’m Your Man – Dan Stevens leads this German-language feature from Maria Schrader, the director of hit Netflix series Unorthodox. The film, which screens in Berlin’s Competition, shot in Berlin and Denmark under pandemic conditions. Maren Eggert plays a scientist who is confronted with a “partnership robot” against her will. Stevens voices the robot. Beta handles international.
In The Lost Lands – Paul W.S. Anderson is teaming with Resident Evil star Milla Jovovich and Dave Bautista on fantasy-adventure movie In the Lost Lands, which is based on the short story by Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. The movie will follow a queen, desperate to obtain the gift of shape shifting, who makes a daring play: She hires the sorceress Gray Alys (Jovovich), a woman as feared as she is powerful. FilmNation is handing international and CAA Media Finance is on domestic.
Petite Maman – Céline Sciamma’s follow up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is this under-the-radar movie that only shot in autumn but was completed in time to screen in Berlin’s competition this week. Not much is known about the movie aside from that it is focused on two young children; Berlin’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian gave us a taste in a recent interview. Mk2 Films is handling sales.
Whina – Rena Owen plays revered Maori activist and female rights advocate Whina Cooper in this drama from James Napier Robertson, who directed 2014 festival favorite The Dark Horse, and Paula Whetu Jones (Waru). Cornerstone is on world sales.
Our Last Summer – Katie Ennis and Gary Jaffe are helming this film about teenager Daniel Rosen, who travels a bumpy road to self-acceptance when his estranged gay uncle Ira returns home, dying of complications from HIV/AIDS. The Exchange is on sales.
Enter The Dragons – Gemma Arterton and Jason Tobin lead the cast of this feel-good comedy from Oscar-nominated director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis). The pic will shoot in the UK this summer. Set in a small English town, it follows a group of women who learn martial arts to stand up to the men in their lives. WestEnd Films is handling sales.
Timestalker – Sam Riley, Natasia Demetriou and Jacob Anderson star alongside filmmaker Alice Lowe in her second directorial outing after Prevenge. The film is a time-travelling romance set in multiple historical periods, chronicling a woman’s unrequited love across several centuries. HanWay Films is on sales.
Best Sellers – Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza are headlining Lina Roessler’s feature directorial debut, which follows a has-been author played by Caine, who is on a wild book tour with a young editor, Plaza. Shoot begins this month. Foresight Unlimited handles foreign sales, while producer Cassian Elwes will handle the domestic sale.
The Great Escaper – Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson front this story of Bernard Jordan’s escape from his care home to attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings in France. Oliver Parker will direct. Pathe will distribute the film in the UK, France and Switzerland and will handle sales throughout the rest of the world.
Sapphire – Barry Keoghan will lead this UK drama-thriller from writer-directors Daniel and Matthew Wolfe. He will play a world-champion snooker player plagued by gambling addiction who escapes to China in search of a fresh start. Bankside Films is handling sales.
Vesper Seeds – Eddie Marsan, Raffiella Chapman and Rosy McEwen star in this sci-fi drama set in a dystopian future following a 13-year-old girl who uses her survival skills to subsist in the decaying remnants of the collapsed world. Anton is handling sales and producing.
Time Is Up – Bella Thorne and Italian popstar Benjamin Mascolo lead this teen romance about two high school seniors who, after an accident, are forced to stop and reclaim their lives. Voltage Pictures is on sales.
Lioness – Nicola Adams became a UK boxing hero when she won Olympic gold medals at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, since then she has become an LGBT icon on the world stage. The project comes from McQueen producers Salon and is being directed by Audrey helmer Helena Coan. Film Constellation handles sales.
Robot Dreams – Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger directs this animated adaptation of Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel about a robot and a dog living in an imaginary version of New York. Elle Driver is on sales.
The Elevator Game – American Horror Story DoP Michael Goi is helming this supernatural horror based on the eponymous online phenomenon. AMP International is handling sales and producing with Los Angeles-based genre startup Fearworks.
On A Wing And A Prayer – Dennis Quaid is leading this faith-based family drama, re-teaming with filmmaker Sean McNamara. MGM is is handling rights.