European Film Market open to recovery

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Just as this year's Berlin International Film Festival is looking to be a year of the newcomers, with the bulk of competition titles coming from up-and-coming directors, so the 2010 EFM appears to be a market of the little guy.

While major players like Focus Features will be around, and screening product, they've mostly set up shop outside the market at private hotel suites. In their place are scores of new companies, many bringing only one or two titles and taking advantage of EFM's slightly lower prices this year. The exit of the big guys -- including, very conspicuously the Weinstein Co., which has not officially registered -- has opened up space for the small- to midsized firms. They include 13 U.S. firms working out of the new stand the Independent Film & Television Alliance has set up at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Thanks to the new companies, attendance numbers look strong. Attendance figures are on par or ahead of 2009, with about 414 companies registered and 2,714 market badges issued, compared with 408 and 2,713, respectively, a year ago. True, there are fewer buyers coming -- 1,339 against 1,448 last year -- but after 18 months of tight wallets, many appear more ready to buy.

"We are trying to accommodate people with the prices, the scheduling, to give the sign we are with you, we support you," EFM director Beki Probst says. "We all have had problems, but this is a very big industry. Things have to go on, the machine can't stop. There is too much at stake."

To keep the machine running, Probst has introduced a number of technical innovations for this year's market. These include a collaboration with the swanky west Berlin cinema Astor Film Lounge to show market screenings in 3D using digital RealD technology. Focus will be among the first to try out the Astor with its screening of Yuen Woo-Ping's martial arts epic "True Legend." The EFM has set up a special bus service to transport execs to the Astor, a 15-minute ride from the MGB.


"The Company Men"
 
This year will also see a market uptick in the number of titles screened on HD Cam, such as StudioCanal's market premiere of terrorist drama "Carlos the Jackal" from Olivier Assayas and John Wells' downsizing drama "The Company Men," starring Ben Affleck, which IM Global is selling in Berlin.

"We've tried to be innovative, to keep up with the times," Probst says. "We're presenting 11 films in 3D, a lot more in HD Cam, and we've noticed a lot of buyers looking for VOD titles, so we've tried to reflect that in our scheduling."

The new-media initiatives might help some, but in the end it will be the films and their sales figures that determine if Berlin 2010 marks the end of the crisis or just more of the same.

"I wouldn't say the presale market is dead, but everyone knows it isn't like it was two or three years ago, so we've all had to react," says Dirk Schurhoff of Germany's Beta Cinema. "We are paying substantially lower minimum guarantees than we used to."

Beta's EFM lineup includes the Forum title "Au Revoir Taipei" from American-Taiwanese director Arvin Chen, which Wim Wenders executive produced; as well as the first footage from "Goethe!" the period piece/romantic drama from German director Philipp Stolzl ("Northface").

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There certainly won't be a lack of buzz titles at this year's EFM. They range from the new Lars von Trier project "Melancholia," the Danish director's sci-fi follow-up to shocker "Antichrist" which TrustNordisk will be preselling; to EuropaCorps' crime thriller "22 Bullets" featuring Jean Reno to the Middle Ages drama "Black Death" starring Sean Bean, which HanWay is premiering in Berlin.

"There was a big blow last year," Probst says. "I remember a lot of sales agents said the buyers came only wanting to renegotiate the contracts they'd already made. But I think this year will be different. I'm not saying it will be paradise on Earth but I do sense an optimistic mood."

Abhi Rastogi, managing director of Canadian production/sales outfit Cinesavvy, confirms that.

"When we launched our company two years back, it was the perfect storm (and) all the numbers were crashing down," he says. "But coming out now, heading to Berlin, it's a good place to be. If you have product ready to screen, buyers are looking to buy. "

He adds, "We've seen the budgets come down to more reasonable levels so that asking prices are now closer to what buyers can afford. We saw a lot of companies disappear last year but in Sundance you had almost as many new ones springing up. I'm optimistic. I think the worst is over and Berlin will be the start of a strong 2010."
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