Market loaded for Bear

Sellers sunny despite so-so biz climate

Complete Berlinale coverage

BERLIN -- Fluctuating currencies, more conservative investment behavior and the ever-present threat of a global economic downturn are all grabbing headlines ahead of the year's first major European-set buying and selling shindig.

But despite the backdrop of hard times, this year's European Film Market, which runs during the Berlin International Film Festival, is primed to be busy.

Unified Pictures CEO Keith Kjarval, whose U.S. sales and financier banner is bringing Jeremy Alter's film noir "The Perfect Sleep" to the market, says it's all been seen before.

"The truth of the matter is the weak dollar doesn't affect our business too much," he said. "People are upping the ante because it has made some domestic executives flinch a little bit. The global economy has seen its fluctuations throughout the years, but it is no secret the film industry flourishes during war, conflict and turmoil. I am very excited about the times we live now and am looking forward to Berlin."

Added Irina Ignatiew, executive vp in charge of international distribution at German sales group Telepool: "If I said the weak dollar wasn't effecting us, I'd be lying. It isn't just the U.S.; a lot of countries have their currencies still tied to the dollar, so we are trying to compensate possible losses by moving higher volumes without underselling the films.

"However, sometimes it just makes sense to wait it out. Generally, we have no reason to complain. We don't feel the problem in the European territories, and we do a lot of our business in Europe."

Buyers jetting into the German capital are quietly confident that this year's EFM, which runs through Feb. 15, will provide steady business and healthy deal levels.

One European-based U.S. acquisitions executive said that there are a handful of projects unspooling during the EFM and a few due for a glitzy rollout on the big screens of the Berlinale that already have whetted buyers' appetites.

"Release slates need to be filled out, and there are a few projects (at Berlin) that look interesting," one buyer said. "The (writers) strike means specialty arms are looking to pick up material to build slates from 2009 on."

Among the market titles expected to attract buzz are "The Damned United," directed by Tom Hooper; Italian director Antonio Luigi Grimaldi's "Caos calmo"; "Solomon Kane," directed by Michael J. Bassett; and Erick Zonca's "Julia," which will have its premiere in Berlin's competition lineup.

The ongoing writers strike in the U.S. and pending SAG industrial action during the summer also could spell opportunity for sellers here with bankrolled projects and firm commitment from quality talent.

Essential Entertainment CEO Jere Hausfater, one of the most recognizable faces in the global market business, said he thought buyers didn't have time to sit down and digest just what impact a strike would have when it started during the opening first few days of the American Film Market in the fall last year.

"With the European Film Market the first big-scale market of the year, the impact has had time to settle in," he said. His company is bringing in a slew of well-heeled titles, including "Kane" and "Fireflies in the Garden."

But the boom times of massive presales paying for production on the back of a director and a sprinkling of tentative talent agreements are long gone.

"At AFM this year, we were very hesitant to prebuy anything since we don't know what will happen, if projects will go ahead or not," said Yoko Higuchi-Zitzmann, head of acquisitions at Germany's Constantin Film. "We may have to look more to European films if some of the U.S. stuff doesn't pan out."

Said Ealing Studios International head of sales Natalie Brenner: "We are only cautiously optimistic because the days of cleaning up on international sales are long over. For independent film, unless you have a big-budget thriller or action film with big names, you really are up against it (in the marketplace). The bigger buyers are just looking for those headline films to fill slates right now."

Brenner and her team are repping the much anticipated "Damned United" at the market.

The mantra that quality titles will always sell is set to be bourne out by the market experience over the coming days.

Said Hausfater: "Berlin could be a very, very good market for sellers with quality product on slates. Luckily, we (at Essential) are very fortunate to have movies in post, shooting and a couple with definitive start dates, so we're doing all right."

But don't expect dealmaking to be speedy.

"International distributors are very cautious, although optimistically cautious," Hausfater said. "(Buyers') decision-making process is very calculated and cumbersome right now."

Said Kjarval: "Buyers in general have experienced this before. I understand that other markets have seen tentative buyers, but if you have quality material and have been paying attention to what audiences are going to see, you will have a good market."

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.
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