How Much Is That Film Worth? Buyers Don’t Have Great Comparisons Now

Dealmakers gathering at the European Film Market see contradictions abound as streamers look for more generic, action-thriller fare, while theatrical distributors eye standout original ideas.

At Berlin’s European Film Market, which wrapped Feb. 22, the indie industry was back in force, and plenty of deals got done.

Amazon Prime Video snatched up international rights to AGC Studio’s The Order, a white supremacist thriller starring Jude Law and Nicholas Hoult from Assassin’s Creed director Justin Kurzel; also, in a deal with sales outfit Rocket Science, Amazon grabbed pirate-themed survival thriller The Bluff, starring Zoe Saldaña from Anthony and Joe Russo’s AGBO banner.

Black Bear International sold out most of Europe and a number of other international territories for Nicolas Cage serial killer movie Longlegs, and the Jamie Bell-Margaret Qualley musical biopic Fred & Ginger. Buyers across Europe pounced on Dogman, Luc Besson’s comeback movie, starring Caleb Landry Jones, which Kinology is selling, with a domestic deal expected soon. And there was considerable heat around Voltage’s Milli Vanilli biopic Girl You Know It’s True, produced by Germany’s Leonine Studios.

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But with the theatrical business in disarray — box office is slowly climbing in most countries, but not for all demographics, and is not yet close to the levels seen pre-pandemic — deciding how much a movie is worth has never been harder. “No one has any confidence anymore what works theatrically,” notes one veteran sales agent. “The old models have fallen apart.”

In the past, international distributors could apply a crude formula to determine the minimum box office a film is likely to make in their territory. It went along the lines of: “Genre plus stars plus director equals X.” An action thriller with an A-list cast was a safe bet. An issue drama or an indie comedy packed with no-names was super risky. Buyers would do “comps”: look at the box office of an older, similar project (the last Liam Neeson action thriller or period drama starring Emma Thompson) and come up with an offer.

But, post-COVID, successful comps have become few and far between, with most indie movies unable to secure a theatrical release. “If it’s not a Marvel or a horror movie, you’re probably not going to sell theatrical,” notes Dean Devlin of Electric Entertainment, who produced such indie-financed hits as Stargate and Independence Day but now focuses on straight-to-TV and straight-to-streamer fare like Syfy’s The Ark. “You are going to have breakout hits, but it’s tough to make a business out of that,” notes Devlin.

Indie films that feel different attracted attention, and buyers, in Berlin. Tina Satter’s Reality, a drama about NSA whistleblower Reality Winner starring Sydney Sweeney and based entirely on the unedited FBI transcript of her FBI interrogation, was a buzzy title at EFM. And Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry, a biopic comedy about the rise and fall of the once-proud smartphone company, was snatched up by Paramount for most of the world outside of North America.

“The trend seems to be that anything that’s extraordinary or really out of the ordinary will get people to come out of their homes to watch in a theater,” adds a buyer for a U.S. indie distributor. “Whereas anything that’s generic, it’s: ‘I’ll wait till that comes out on Netflix.’ ”

At the same time, the streamers — which, aside from a few big-ticket buys, are the primary market for post-theatrical ancillary rights — are increasingly demanding more mainstream fare. This is creating a strange dynamic among buyers, who want standout originals for the cinema and generic fare (think “an action movie with a Gerard Butler type”) for the streamers. And for that to be the same film. “They want films that they can run comps on and, on the other hand, they want something wildly original,” says Mimi Steinbauer, of Radiant Films International. “I’m like: Pick a lane.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.