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After a couple of lean years, Berlin is ready to feast.
Its European Film Market kicks off on Thursday, Feb. 16 with hundreds of finished films and scores of new packages and projects for every cinematic taste and budget. Even as sellers are still setting up their stands at the EFM’s Martin Gropius Bau headquarters, new packages continue to come thick and fast.
Black Bear International, which helped close a deal with Lionsgate (for domestic) and Amazon (for multiple international territories) for Guy Ritchie’s World War II actioner The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare on the eve of Berlin, added the buzzy musical project Fred & Ginger, about Hollywood dance legends Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, played by Jamie Bell and Margaret Qualley, to its EFM slate. Black Bear will handle international sales of the project, previously at Amazon, with UTA Independent Film Group and 30WEST co-repping the U.S.
UTA and Mister Smith Entertainment have teamed on the enticing thriller project Wichita Libra, starring Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton, Fair Play), which will kick off pre-sales in Berlin, and Mister Smith will also be pitching the David M. Rosenthal-directed L.A. noir crime tale The Smack with the impressive ensemble cast of Casey Affleck, Alan Arkin, Teyana Taylor, Kathy Bates and Isabel May.
International sales firm The Veterans and CAA Media Finance pitched Ship, a sequel to hit Gerard Butler vehicle Plane just ahead of Berlin, with Luke Cage actor Mike Colter to star. Highland Film Group excited sci-fi fans with the launch of space thriller The Astronaut, starring Emma Roberts and Laurence Fishburne from The Purge producer Brad Fuller, with CAA and UTA Independent Film Group co-repping domestic rights.
HanWay arrives in Berlin with multiple buzzy titles, including Morning, an upcoming sci-fi feature from Assassin’s Creed director Justin Kurzel which will feature Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody star Naomi Ackie, Laura Dern, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Archstone Entertainment has a Luke Hemsworth adult comedy, The Greatest Surf Movie in the Universe; The Exchange a psychological thriller The Cut, starring Orlando Bloom as a boxer who goes over the edge; XYZ Films a Kiefer Sutherland topped action-thriller The Winter Kills. And on and on and on.
In total, there will be around 700 films screening at this year’s EFM, according to market director Dennis Ruh who notes that the industry will be back in force in Berlin. “When it comes to attendance levels, we expect to be back where we were in 2019 or 2020,” he says.
The past two EFMs, in contrast, were comparatively meager affairs. And not just because COVID rules meant they were all-virtual. There were far fewer projects on offer, as independent producers and financiers struggled to get movies made. New travel and shooting restrictions, a lack of proper COVID insurance, and general uncertainty about the future of the theatrical market turned the usual flood of new projects in Berlin to a trickle.
There was still money to be made. Sony last year won a bidding war to pre-buy Tom Hanks starrer A Man Called Otto, paying a reported $60 million for worldwide rights to the dramedy, a remake of the 2015 Swedish hit A Man Called Ove — but for most, it was slim pickings.
“In general, a film market [is] judged primarily on the volume of content for sale, and only secondarily on those handful of large packages that appear to generate excitement and drive bidding wars,” says Alison Thompson, co-president of Cornerstone Films.
Berlin 2023 should be different.
The sheer volume and variety of films on offer at the EFM — a ballerina-themed action movie starring GOT‘s Lena Headey from The Veterans and CAA; a high-concept horror film about an Indian teen from Get Out producer QC Entertainment and sales group Protagonist; the new arthouse drama from Korean auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda (Broker, Shoplifters), which Gaga and Wild Bunch are selling; star-driven action vehicles featuring Liam Neeson and Christoph Waltz — should ensure there truly is something for everyone. And while quantity is not any guarantee of quality, after years of being starved of films during COVID, independent distributors will be hungry and eager to fill their slates. Few will go home unsated.
Variety is just what the post-COVID box office needs. There are signs of theatrical green shoots everywhere — the U.S. box office for January was up more than 50 percent over the same month last year; China’s Spring Festival box office topped $1 billion, making it the second highest-grossing to date; Japan’s theaters finished 2022 with an estimated $1.52 billion gross, just 9.4 percent off the country’s pre-pandemic average. But, so far, the box office bounce has been overly dependent on a thin group of Hollywood blockbusters — primarily Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick — alongside a smattering of local tentpoles, such as Japanese anime One Piece: Film Red and Shah Rukh Khan’s Indian action movie Pathaan.
A healthy cinema market, however, relies on a regular supply of mid-sized hits, something that can only come with an increase in releases. In the 10 years before the COVID shutdown, from 2010 through 2019, more than 2,300 films were released in theaters on average per year in the U.S. Over the past three years those figures have been 881, 986 and, last year, 1,158, still barely more than half the number seen pre-pandemic. If the movie business is to truly turn the corner, it needs more volume, more second- and-third tier films getting packaged, sold and released.
“That’s what you need for a really good, vibrant, healthy film market,” notes Thompson. “Lots of very different films for the business that sits just below the flashy lights business, the busy, industrious independent film business a bit lower in the food chain that just gets on with it.”
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