Berlin Market Wrap: Hollywood Spends Big as International Buyers Struggle

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Dwayne Johnson

MGM pinned down one of the biggest Berlin deals ever ($17.5 million!), while foreign distributors had limited leftovers to fill their slates.

Berlin this year has been a tale of feast and famine, with American distributors, both traditional and digital, gorging themselves on packaged and finished films, while foreign buyers, starved for mainstream projects with bankable stars, were left fighting over slim pickings.

Domestic deals have been fast and frequent at the European Film Market, led by MGM’s mega-deal for world rights for Fighting With My Family, a wrestling drama from Dwayne Johnson, WWE Studios and Film4. The project, to be written and directed by Stephen Merchant (The Office), is inspired by a documentary for Britain’s Channel 4 about a family of low-rent wrestlers who get a shot at the big time. MGM paid $17.5 million, one of the biggest Berlin deals ever.

There were plenty of greenbacks to go around this year. Sony took worldwide rights to Greyhound, a WWII package with Tom Hanks to star based on his own script. CAA and FilmNation sold it in an eight-figure deal. And Lionsgate grabbed U.S. rights to Keanu Reeves’ NASCAR actioner Rally Car, which Taken 2's Olivier Megaton will direct.

What this year’s market lacks, according to many, are bigger projects with name actors that are the lifeblood of international presales. "The one thing the marketplace hasn’t here is films of real scale for independent buyers,” says Bloom’s Alex Walton, who last year was about to sell most of the world for Suburbicon, a package with George Clooney attached to direct and Matt Damon and Julianne Moore starring. “There are less and less opportunities of films with higher budgets with stars that can be wider releases in their territories that can drive their TV relationships as well as their exhibition relationships.” Greyhound and Fighting With My Family could have fit the bill this year before the studios swooped in for worldwide rights.

“You see a lot more willingness to come in earlier because of the aggressive worldwide buying on behalf of [Netflix and Amazon],” said Liz Kim Schwan, president of international at Covert Media, which saw major activity around two of its upcoming projects: a Star Wars spoof from the creators of the Scary Movie franchise, and biopic Del starring Mike Myers.

Indeed, Netflix swooped in early to pick up worldwide rights to Cargo off a promo. The Australian zombie movie, from the producers of The Babadook, features The Hobbit star Martin Freeman.

With fewer star-driven films, international indies are, slowly, changing tack. “Cast used to be the most important thing,” says Tara Erer, FilmNation’s senior vp, sales. “But look at Manchester by the Sea. Who would have thought (when pre-selling that film), that Casey Affleck would be a leading actor? What’s working at the box office is fresh movies.”

Beyond the studios, Berlin has been a healthy market for domestic buyers just four days in. "For the past two years, Berlin has been a place where studio wide release packages have sold big, but this year there’s a quantity of specialty movies selling fast and for really good numbers. It's a continuation of the market momentum that began at Sundance,” says Micah Green of CAA.

Many U.S. distributors have picked up at least one specialty title: IFC acquired Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Death of Stalin; A24 grabbed A Prayer Before Dawn; Sony Pictures Classics took Sebastian Lelio’s well-reviewed A Fantastic Woman; Open Road acquired Finding Steve McQueen; Saban Films grabbed Redivider starring Dan Stevens and Berenice Marlohe; and newcomer Neon took Racer and the Jailbird.

And the momentum of Sundance and Berlin on the domestic side, and the elevated competition for projects, has many optimistic about the packages that will be put together for Cannes as buyers vie for more material and the sales agents are eager to sell them for strong numbers.

“If somebody comes in with a big film, it could be gigantic,” says Brian O'Shea, CEO of The Exchange, who is selling Disney UK’s family film Patrick and Thomas Mann’s Beef. "The bigger buyers will bet even more now on the right thing because there’s so much competition now."