Dealmakers face ongoing uncertainty about theatrical releases thanks to COVID-19.
A year of the coronavirus — lockdowns, virtual film markets, online festivals and quarantined sets — has left its mark. While virtual Cannes was a blockbuster — with monster global deals for $50 million-plus indie packages, including The Blacksmith (Nick Jonas and Laurence Fishburne), Ferrari (Hugh Jackman) and Armageddon Time (Oscar Isaac, Robert De Niro and Cate Blanchett) — challenges in financing and producing under COVID-19, a continued uncertainty over theatrical's future and a backlog of finished but unreleased movies has put a damper on presales. AFM in November was marked by caution. A strong Sundance — with big deals for films like Jockey (Sony Pictures Classics), Passing (Netflix) and the record $25 million that Apple TV+ paid for Coda — suggests buyers would prefer to cherry-pick finished films rather than guess what an in-development project today might be worth when it comes out in a few years' time.
"There's also the question: When cinemas reopen, what will people want to see? Depressing dramas or feel-good art house? No one knows," says Dirk Schuerhoff of Germany's Beta Cinema. For the moment, increased VOD sales — to new streamers like HBO Max and Disney+ — has helped balance a falloff in theatrical. "We had 'just' a 20 percent drop in revenue last year thanks to streaming," notes Schuerhoff.
Adds Mark Gooder of Cornerstone: "Berlin is going to be a litmus test. A lot of buyers who pre-bought in Cannes last year thought they'd have full slates by now, but many of these films haven't gone into production. The question now is: Will they be gun-shy or will they be willing to keep buying?"
While there are a few strong packages on offer at Berlin 2021, expect much of the business to be for the handful of buzzy titles screening across the festival's official program, with work from art house darlings (Céline Sciamma, Hong Sang-soo, Claire Denis) among the hottest titles.
DIRECTOR Duke Johnson
CAST Ryan Gosling
BUZZ This adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s hardboiled best-seller could appeal to specialty distributors who long to see a return to Drive mode for Gosling. The Canadian star plays an actor in the 1950s who suffers memory loss following a brutal act of violence and struggles to piece together his identity.
SALES CAA Media Finance/Endeavor Content (U.S.), Endeavor (International)
DIRECTOR Castille Landon
CAST Josephine Langford, Arielle Kebbel, Hero Fiennes Tiffin
BUZZ After We Collided, the sequel to the 2019 sleeper hit After, managed to gross more than $50 million worldwide in the middle of a pandemic, a performance that should whet appetites for this third installment of the YA romance franchise based on the Anna Todd best-sellers.
SALES Voltage Pictures
DIRECTOR Lina Roessler
CAST Michael Caine, Aubrey Plaza, Cary Elwes
BUZZ The cross-generational appeal of Caine, Parks and Recreation alum Plaza and Princess Bride star Elwes is a strong selling point for this upscale drama, which sees Caine play a cranky author reluctantly embarking on one final book tour.
SALES Foresight Unlimited (International), CAA Media Finance (U.S.)
DIRECTOR Robert Connolly
CAST Eric Bana, Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell
BUZZ Australia, as one of the few territories still open and nearly COVID-free, is having a moment, and Down Under features — especially ones like this family-friendly adaptation of a Tim Winton novella featuring some of the most recognizable onscreen Aussie talents — could appeal to buyers starved of English-language product.
SALES HanWay Films
DIRECTOR Neill Blomkamp
BUZZ Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) has proved a safe pair of hands for distributors looking for strong crossover genre fare, so expect them to be lining up to check out his latest: a foray into supernatural horror in a story of a young woman whose trauma calls forth actual demons.
SALES AGC International, ICM Partners
DIRECTOR Claire Denis
CAST Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Mati Diop
BUZZ French auteur Denis (High-Life, Beau Travail) is a bankable name for international art house distributorships, and the all-star French cast of this love-triangle drama, led by Oscar winner Binoche, should boost the film's prospects in virtual Berlin.
SALES Wild Bunch Int'l/Anton
DIRECTOR Maria Schrader
CAST Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller
BUZZ Intimacy issues are of the moment in the COVID era — see Netflix drama Malcolm & Marie and Sundance hit How It Ends — which could play well for this sci-fi rom-com from Emmy winner Schrader (Unorthodox), in which a scientist takes part in an experiment with a robot (Stevens) programmed to make her happy.
SALES Beta Cinema
DIRECTOR Eskil Vogt
BUZZ A YA-supernatural thriller for the discerning art house crowd, this Nordic tale, from the writer of Cannes favorites Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs, could have crossover appeal, particularly for specialty distributors.
DIRECTOR Paul W.S. Anderson
CAST Dave Bautista, Milla Jovovich
BUZZ One of the very few big-budget event titles on offer at this year's EFM, this fantasy-adventure epic, from Resident Evil helmer Anderson, is based on a short story by Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. It should be an easy sell, though a project this big could get snatched up by a studio or global streamer before the international indie buyers get a look-see.
SALES FilmNation (international), CAA (domestic)
DIRECTOR Neil Burger
CAST Daisy Ridley
BUZZ Burger's adaptation of Karen Dionne's hit psycho-thriller novel has been doing the market rounds for a while, but the new attachment of Star Wars alum Ridley should move it into the buy column for major distributors. Mark L. Smith is adaptating Dionne's book for the screen.
SALES STX International
DIRECTOR Yngvild Sve Flikke
BUZZ This quirky, partly animated dramedy from Norway, about a 20-something cartoonist who gets pregnant but is not ready to be a mother — looks like the antidote for buyers wanting to escape the dread of the current news cycle.
DIRECTOR Andres Baiz
CAST Shailene Woodley, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore
BUZZ Midbudget thrillers are just what risk-averse international buyers are hungry for in this uncertain market, and this $15 million-plus feature, starring Woodley as a hot-shot Wall Street trader who teams up with a local prison guard (Mackie) to take on a corrupt prison system, and the corrupt money behind it, could fit nicely.
SALES AGC International/ CAA Media Finance
DIRECTOR Céline Sciamma
BUZZ After the crossover success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, art house distributors will be clamoring to see the latest from the French auteur. While her sophomore film Tomboy dealt with adolescence, for her fifth feature Sciamma delves back further into childhood, focusing on 8-year-olds Nelly and Marion, who meet by chance after the death of Nelly's beloved grandmother.
SALES MK2 Films
DIRECTOR Pablo Berger
BUZZ Speciality distributors worldwide will want to check out this animated effort from Spanish auteur Pablo Berger, helmer of critically acclaimed live-action features Blancanieves and Abracadabra. Berger is teaming with art director José Luis Ágreda (Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles) and character designer Daniel Fernandez Casas (Klaus) for this adaptation of Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel about a robot and a dog living in an imaginary, animal-inhabited 1980s version of New York City.
SALES Elle Driver
DIRECTOR Hettie Macdonald
CAST Jim Broadbent
BUZZ Feel-good redemption stories are golden these days, and this adaptation based on Rachel Joyce's best-seller about a man who walks across the U.K. to save his friend's life fits the bill. Buyers will be reassured by the presence of Oscar winner Broadbent and Normal People helmer Macdonald behind the camera.
DIRECTORS James Napier Robertson, Paula Whetu Jones
CAST Rena Owen
BUZZ The history of the global civil rights struggle, long ignored by the international film industry, has come sharply into focus, thanks in part to the success of films like One Night in Miami and Judas and the Black Messiah. Good timing, then, for this Kiwi period drama, featuring Once Were Warriors star Rena Owen as Māori matriarch and activist Dame Whina Cooper, who, in 1975 at the age of 79, led the first Māori Land March, walking over 620 miles to protest the treatment of New Zealand's indigenous peoples.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.