Berlin: A Post-COVID Recovery Leads to Optimism as European Film Market Wraps

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

With the promise of theaters reopening and plenty of big-budget, buzzy art house titles available, Berlin's EFM offered hope for the global film business after a year of Corona lockdown: "There is a consensus that there is light at the end of the tunnel." 

This year, more than most, Berlin's European Film Market was an opportunity to gauge the health of the global indie industry. Judging from the business done over the past week — the 2021 EFM wraps Friday — the general assessment would be: The patient is stable and the prognosis is promising.

"For the first time in many markets, we are seeing a proper supply of films: we've got movies for every taste, every budget, every genre," says Stefano Massuzi of Italian distributor Lucky Red. "With progress on vaccines and the promise of theaters reopening it feels like a restart."

That optimism was reflected in the ambition of some of the films brought to the 2021 EFM. The COVID pandemic, and the lack of affordable insurance to cover for pandemic-imposed shutdowns, slammed the brakes on many of the biggest indie projects (Roland Emmerich's $140 million sci-fi epic Moonfall from AGC Studios, which delivered last year, being a notable exception), but in Berlin, the tentpole titles returned.

FilmNation and CAA launched In Lost Lands, a fantasy epic from Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson, starring Milla Jovovich and Dave Bautista, based on a story by Game of Thrones novelist George R.R. Martin. Lionsgate rolled out Eli Roth's hotly anticipated adaptation of blockbuster sci-fi horror video game Borderlands. And AGC Studios lined up Shailene Woodley and Anthony Mackie for its prison-set thriller Panopticon, produced with Scott Free and directed by Narcos helmer Andrés Baiz.

"My big takeaway from this market is that the big companies are going bigger and the smaller companies have become smaller," says Cindy Mi Lin, CEO of Beijing-based distributor Infotainment China Media, which acquired China rights to AGC's The Blacksmith — a comic book action adaptation from Taken director Pierre Morel — ahead of Berlin. "AGC, Lionsgate, and FilmNation have all gone bigger, with budgets that are almost studio-level — all $70 million to $160 million and they're all offering sci-fi, which is interesting. They're producing studio-look movies and going big. The small companies have become smaller, with smaller budgets. There are no medium-sized films in the market."

While the middle may be getting squeezed, there was plenty of business in Berlin for both the top-end tentpoles and low-budget art house fare. The latter — which tends to dominate the Berlin Film Festival's official program — found takers in the likes of Neon, which scooped up North American rights to Céline Sciamma’s well-received competition title Petite Maman, or Cinema Guild, which nabbed U.S. rights to Hong Sang-soo's black-and-white minimalist drama Introduction.

"We've been busy! We announced UK/Ireland deals for three films by female directors: The Souvenir Part II from Joanna Hogg, True Things from Harry Wootliff and Hatching by Hanna Bergholm," notes Clare Binns, joint managing director of UK art house exhibitor Picturehouse Cinemas. "Our commitment to quality indies and foreign language cinema on the big screen remains stronger than ever."

However, much like in Sundance a few weeks earlier, the biggest deals for finished films were struck by studios and global streamers, who have shown the willingness to pay top dollar for buzzy indie titles both niche and mainstream. Universal's Focus Features snatched up most of the world on Red Rocket, Sean Baker's follow-up to The Florida Project, from FilmNation ahead of Berlin, with only a handful of territories — including France (Le Pacte), Israel (Lev Cinemas), and Australia/New Zealand (Roadshow Distribution) — going to indie buyers. A24 has rights in North America.

Netflix secured a pair of eight-figure deals: It paid a reported $15 million for North America and Latin America rights to Colin Firth World War II movie Operation Mincemeat from The King’s Speech producer See-Saw and Cohen Media Group, and dropped $18 million for U.S. rights to Liam Neeson-Laurence Fishburne action-thriller The Ice Road in a deal with CAA Media finance. (The Solution is handling international sales on the project, which is written and directed by Die Hard With a Vengeance and Armageddon screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh.)

International indie buyers have been more cautious, in part because theater reopenings are still a piecemeal affair. While cinemas in several big territories are open for business, including Australia/New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, and there's been promising progress in the U.S. — with cinemas in art house-friendly New York set to open Friday (March 5) — Europe remains a gray zone. Italy and Germany have laid out plans to begin reopening theaters, perhaps as early as late March, and the U.K. is aiming for a return to semi-normal operations May 17, but few expect the emergence from lockdown to be smooth or straightforward.

Alamo Drafthouse's bankruptcy filing this week was a stark reminder of how precarious the exhibition business remains.

"Distributors adapting to the local conditions of each territory is, of course, crucial, and as the state of the world differs country by country, being nimble is more important than ever," says Elizabeth Williams, director of acquisitions and development at Signature Entertainment. "I've had Zooms this week with people in Australia essentially living in a non-COVID world right now, with people in the U.S. who have barely left their homes in a year.... Overall, though, there is a consensus that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The news of cinemas reopening in the U.K. in a couple of months has given everyone a boost, and in the meantime, there are many good films to acquire and release for those at home keen for some escapism."

Alex Ritman and Patrick Brzeski contributed to this report.