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Netflix, again, made all the headlines. The streaming giant closed out Berlin’s European Film Market — an all-online affair this year that wrapped on Friday — with a jaw-dropping $55 million deal for worldwide rights to The Pale Blue Eye, a Gothic horror-thriller set in 1830 that will re-team star Christian Bale with his Hostiles director Scott Cooper.
Netflix won the bidding war for the project — set to begin shooting this fall, in a global deal with CAA Media Finance, Endeavor Content, and MadRiver. And it was not the streaming giant’s only big buy in Berlin. The company also paid a reported $18 million for U.S. rights to the Liam Neeson-Laurence Fishburne action-thriller The Ice Road (another CAA Media Finance title) and scooped up rights in North and Latin America for the Colin Firth World War II movie Operation Mincemeat from The King’s Speech producer See-Saw and Cohen Media Group.
But Berlin wasn’t all about the streamers. Independent distributors worldwide, buoyed by vaccine rollouts and the promise of theaters reopening, looked ready to go all-in on major projects from the likes of FilmNation (fantasy epic In the Lost Lands from Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson, Sean Penn/Tye Sheridan starrer Black Flies); Rocket Science (Robbie Williams biopic Better Man from The Greatest Showman director Michael Gracey); and Lionsgate (Eli Roth’s Borderlands adaptation), with many of the biggest projects close to selling out as Berlin drew to a close.
“The bidding has been quite aggressive,” said Olivier van den Broeck, managing partner at Benelux distributor The Searchers, which pre-bought several titles, including Better Man, In the Lost Lands and Black Flies out of Berlin. “If we’ve learned anything from the past few months it’s that if your slate is strong enough if the movies are good enough, you’ll be able to move forward.”
There was also plenty of business in Berlin for low-budget arthouse fare, the story of projects that dominate the Berlin Film Festival’s official program, and much of the finished-film business at the EFM. Neon continued its relationship with Portrait of Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma, taking North American rights to the French auteur’s latest, the well-received Berlin competition title Petite Maman; Cinema Guild, which bought Hong Sangsoo’s The Woman Who Ran in Berlin last year, this year took U.S. rights to the Korean director’s latest, the black-and-white minimalist drama Introduction. New York arthouse specialist Kino Lorber picked up several titles, including Dominik Graf’s German period drama Fabian — Going to the Dogs, and Burhan Qurbani’s Berlin, Alexanderplatz, a competition title from Berlin 2020.
Within the Asian industry, much of the energy at EFM derived from a recent geopolitical development: China’s signal that it could soon be lifting a longstanding block on all South Korean entertainment content. The ban — introduced by Beijing in 2016 in retaliation for Seoul allowing the installment of a U.S.-made anti-missile system on the Korean Peninsula — cut off Korean studios from their most lucrative growth markets. Many in both markets believe Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winner Parasite ($260 million worldwide gross) could easily have earned tens of millions more if it had been allowed a Chinese theatrical bow.
On Feb. 22, just a week before the Berlin market, China and South Korea’s state broadcasters — CCTV and KBS, respectively — signed an agreement to develop TV and video content together, a move widely interpreted as the first stage in a long-hoped-for thaw. “I believe it will open up for sure,” says Cindy Mi Lin, CEO of Beijing-based distributor Infotainment China Media, which acquired The Wailing from South Korean maverick Na Hong-jin in 2016, just prior to the blockade, but has yet to be able to release it. “Now we’re just waiting to see the scale and speed of the re-opening — I’m hopeful that it will be within 2021,” she says.
There was also a greater spirit of cooperation and collaboration between independent distributors and global streamers, two groups often at loggerheads in the past. Netflix acquisitions Operation Mincemeat and The Ice Road will get theatrical releases in many international territories, per previous pre-sale deals, and Apple has amicably resolved most of the disputes surrounding its recently-announced worldwide rights deal for Sian Heder’s Sundance crowdpleaser Coda. The film, which Pathe had pre-sold to much of the world, will still go out theatrically in many international territories, with Apple in negotiations to take second- or third-window rights in places where it does not own the movie outright.
“The business we saw in Berlin shows the indies can co-exist with the streamers,” says van den Broeck. “Business models, release strategies: everything is very fluid at the moment. But the fact that people are still buying given the circumstances of the past year? I think that’s more than a silver lining.”
A version of this story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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