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As the first major film market of 2016 kicks off Thursday in Berlin, buyers are anxiously watching Netflix and Amazon to see what their next moves will be. Will Berlin see a continuation of the Sundance spending spree? And what will that mean for the traditional international film business, one built around theatrical releases and the middlemen of sales companies that sell movie projects country by country around the world?
“Will they be a disruptive force, with producers bypassing sales agents to work directly with [Netflix and Amazon], or will they work with the traditional film players?” asks European Film Market director Matthijs Wouter Knol, who notes that the streamers are sending a record number of buyers to Berlin.
Berlin marked the start of Netflix’s aggressive move into the feature film business when, last year, it paid $12 million for Beasts of No Nation. But last month’s Sundance fest was where the streaming buyers really caught fire, with Amazon dropping $10 million for U.S. rights to Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Netflix paying $7?million for the Paul Rudd-starrer The Fundamentals of Caring and $5?million for Tallulah, starring Ellen Page. Netflix also helped set off the bidding war for The Birth of a Nation when it offered $20?million for Nate Parker’s slave epic, forcing eventual buyer Fox Searchlight to up its bid to a record-breaking $17.5?million.
“There’s no way [Fox Searchlight] would ever have paid $17 million for that film without Netflix in the picture,” said one international distributor. “They are driving up the prices for the movies they go after.”
However, Berlin is not Sundance. The films on offer at Park City are finished features, mainly U.S. independent productions. Berlin is a market for prestige international features — see Emma Thompson-starrer Alone in Berlin or John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone, starring Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena — or mainstream films that are pre-sold on the basis of a script, cast and concept. The big deals coming out of this EFM will likely be for Steven Soderbergh’s new heist thriller Logan Lucky, starring Channing Tatum, or Suburbicon, the Coen Bros.-penned crime comedy that George Clooney will direct. That kind of big-budget fare is mostly uncharted territory for the streaming giants. It’s also unclear whether the A-list talent behind them would be ready to give up a theatrical bow in exchange for a big check.
Beasts of No Nation could prove a cautionary tale. Cary Fukunaga’s child-soldier drama starring Idris Elba netted critical acclaim, but it arguably had less impact, particularly during awards season, than it would have had if the film had been given a traditional release.
“I think that if Beasts had done better theatrically and ended up getting an Oscar nomination or two, then it feels as if it would have been game over for the entire traditional industry,” said Leo Pearlman, co-founder of London-based production house Fulwell 73. “Netflix could have shown that they can buy a film, give it a theatrical release alongside its Netflix release and still get that credibility.” Instead, says Pearlman, the release of Beasts “worked out very well” for traditional distributors, who can still argue they are indispensable for big awards-bait movies.
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