Berlin: Dealmakers Praise Digital Market's "Efficiency," Pine for Return to Human Contact

Berlinale website page February 18, 2021
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Building on lessons from digital Cannes and digital AFM, Berlin's online-only European Film Market is running like a well-oiled machine, though participants long for a return to in-person events. "It's slick and efficient, if a bit dull."

When, last May, the Cannes Film Market bowed to the inevitable and went online-only, it was a leap in the dark.

Could the independent film industry — a business that relies, perhaps more than any other, on trust and personal connections — function in a virtual space? Would buyers continue to bet millions on pre-sale movies if they couldn't see sellers in person, couldn't shake their hands, and look right in their eyes when they make their pitch, but had to base everything on a Zoom call or online pitch? Would buzz and buyer bidding wars — the lifeblood of any film market — even be possible with buyers scattered across time zones, working from their homes and offices, and watching movies via lifestream with all the regular distractions of ordinary life around them?

Nine months and two more virtual markets later — the virtual AFM in November and now Berlin's European Film Market (EFM), which runs through March 5 — indie players are in a better position to answer those questions and to assess the impact on the industry of the online-only business model.

"I really miss the travel, the pleasant familiarity of Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, and L.A., of seeing old faces, people I've been working with for 30 years or more," says David Garrett of Mister Smith Entertainment. "But I have to admit there are all sorts of good things to have come out of the virtual markets. One being not having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on travel to markets, setting up in hotels, etc. In the past we'd almost have to take on an extra film to pay for the cost of doing all the physical markets."

Sitting behind a computer screen for 12 hours or more a day, pitching to distributors across multiple timezones, can be exhausting. "I'm so sick of Zoom meetings! I'm so sick of video calls!" says Dirk Schuerhoff of Germany's Beta Cinema. "I just want to have a real meeting again, actually have a drink with somebody!"

But the business hasn't suffered as much as most had expected from going online. Both virtual Cannes and virtual AFM saw a slew of global pre-sale deals for the likes of AGC Studio's Dave Batista actioner The Universe's Most Wanted, and the James McAvoy/Claire Foy thriller My Son, sold by MadRiver.

"There are broader benefits from rubbing shoulders but for a purely buying and selling perspective, doing business via zoom meetings, phone calls, and email is a more streamlined, more efficient process," says AGC Studio CEO Stuart Ford.

"Nobody's late for meetings, nobody is hungover," quips Alison Thompson of Cornerstone. "It is really quite slick and efficient, if a bit dull."

Most market participants say the digital EFM has been working like a well-oiled machine. Some gripe that Berlin didn't need to launch its own separate streaming platform — "we get a new platform for each market, a new system to learn, with new quirks and new glitches" noted one veteran sales agent — but, having learned from Cannes and the AFM's technical teething problems, there have been no reports of major issues so far.

The move online has even prompted innovation in the pitching game. Beta Cinema delighted buyers in Cannes with a virtual "late night" show format featuring Schuerhoff as a Jimmy Fallon-style host and sales executive Thorsten Ritter as his band-leader sidekick (with Ritter showing off his talents on the electric guitar). "It was so fun, it actually convinced me to watch one of their films, a German comedy, that I wouldn't have checked out otherwise," said Andrew Frank, Vice President, Sales & Acquisitions, at Canada's Mongrel Media, at the time.

Mark Gooder of Cornerstone says he misses having buyers in the same room when making a pitch — "you can immediately sense when something's not landing when they aren't interested," he notes — but Jeffrey Greenstein of Millennium Media says his company has found a way to recreate the physical experience online.

"We've set things up so when the buyers watch our promo reel on our platform, we have the camera on them to watch them watching," says Greenstein. "We can see their reaction in real-time, just like if they were in the room."

Several aspects of the virtual markets look like they are here to stay. Both sellers and buyers say, post-pandemic, they'll be looking to streamline their market presence, sending fewer people to physical events and doing more business online. Industry streaming platforms are certain to be a fixture of every future event.

But everyone The Hollywood Reporter spoke to — buyers, sellers, producers, and talent —still can't wait to get back to the stress and chaos of a regular movie market.

"Participants from [virtual] Cannes and AFM told us about packed appointment calendars, intensive meetings, exciting pitches, and panel discussions," says Dennis Ruh, the new director of Berlin's EFM. "The possibility to watch market screenings online within a more flexible time window was also well received. And to be able to do it all without traveling, so in a more ecological and economic fashion.

But all those functional aspects together still can't outweigh the great desire to meet again in person as soon as possible. At the end of the day, a market experience in which one sees meets, and speaks 'in real life' can't be compared to a virtual encounter."