Berlin balancing act

Recession has this year's EFM buyers in look-first mode

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BERLIN -- The frosty weather isn't the only thing giving buyers and sellers a chill as they gear up for this year's European Film Market amid the global economic crisis that's casting a pall over Berlin.

"There is a sense of uncertainty and disequilibrium. People are a little off balance," Fortissimo co-chief Michael Werner said. "But you've got to remember that we haven't seen most of these buyers for four months, since Toronto and the AFM. A lot has happened in the world since then so we'll be getting a sense of the temperature and the mood at the market."

Fortissimo is showcasing footage of four new titles in the market including "Face" by Chinese director Tsai Ming-Liang. But Werner admits that economic pressures on buyers means that anyone hawking films at the EFM "will have to be realistic" when it comes to pricing.

They should also have something to show if they expect to seal a deal in the next 10 days. While previous EFMs have been abuzz with big presales, buyers this year are playing it safe. They want to see before they sign.

"It looks like Berlin is moving from being a pre-sales market to being a screening market," said Yoko Higuchi-Zitzmann, head of acquisitions for Germany's Telepool. "Films before that would have sold on script, buyers are now waiting for the trailer. Films before that would have sold on the trailer, buyers now are waiting for the finished film."

There are handful of in-development titles are generating heat at this year's market. They include:

-- GK Films' "The Rum Diaries," which has Johnny Depp on board to star in Bruce Robinson's adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson autobiographical novel. GK also has Martin Campbell's hotly anticipated thriller "Edge of Darkness," with Mel Gibson headlining.

-- Peter Weir's "The Way Back" from Exclusive Film Distribution is the story of a real-life escape from a Siberian gulag in the 1940s, with Colin Ferrell attached to star.

-- Pathe Pictures International's "Miral" is Julian Schnabel's follow-up to his acclaimed "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

-- Voltage Pictures' untitled Robert Redford project, a modern-day political thriller in the vein of "Three Days of the Condor."

But the bulk of sellers setting up shop at the Martin-Gropius-Bau this year should follow the (paraphrased) advice from "Field of Dreams": You've got to build it before they come.

That might be good news for some of the festival titles looking for sales on the back of their Berlinale debut. Such films as Lukas Moodysson's "Mammoth," Lone Scherfig's "An Education," Julie Delpy's "The Countess" and "John Rabe" from Florian Gallenberger have the advantage of being finished.

"It's a bit odd to say it in the middle of a global financial crisis, but it looks like we might be going into our best year ever," said TrustNordisk CEO Rikke Ennis, who is selling Berlinale competition titles "Mammoth," Annette K. Oelsen's "Little Solider" and "Storm" from Hans-Christian Schmid. "This is shaping up to be a huge Berlin for us."

Few 2009 attendees are so optimistic. But EFM director Beki Probst and Berlinale head Dieter Kosslick, opening the market with a small reception on Wednesday, tried putting on a brave face.

"We all can hope for a rosier future but I think we need optimism (in order to make that happen)," Probst said.

Kosslick was more direct.

"I wish you all good business. And a lot of money," he said.

Charles Masters contributed to this report.