Berlin: Why the European Film Market Is a Litmus Test for the Indie Biz

European Film Market, Berlin - H 2018
Courtesy of European Film Market

Berlin's European Film Market will be an all-virtual affair this year.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, independent buyers are "cautious and wary" as Berlin's virtual market kicks off: "They have a backlog and they are reluctant to buy anything new until they've cleared that."

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, executives setting up Zoom meetings and preparing to stream promos for Berlin's 2021 European Film Market — which kicks off Monday and runs through March 5 — are taking stock after 12 extraordinary months that have transformed the independent film industry.

Many expect the all-virtual Berlin market will be the real test of the health of the indie biz. The virtual Cannes and American Film Markets last year were abuzz with optimism and big pre-sale deals as buyers bet on a quick end to lockdown and a return to business as usual.

A year later, with cinemas still shut across most of the world, that optimism is giving way to worry and fear.

"The buyers have a number of obvious problems," says David Garrett of Mister Smith Entertainment. "A lot have taken delivery of 15-20 movies that they either can't release because cinemas aren't open or are being held back because the U.S. release has been delayed six months, a year or more. They have a backlog and they are reluctant to buy anything new until they've cleared that."

Add to that the financial commitment — several million in the case of the bigger international independents — for pre-sold films set to shoot last year that, due to COVID, have been put on ice. "It all means buyers are only looking for certainty," says Garrett. "If it's a pre-sale package, they are much more wary: they want to know exactly when it's shooting, when they can take delivery, and when they'll be able to release it in cinemas."

Garrett hopes to get buyers to bite on Mister Smith's Werewolves Within, a high-concept horror title bankrolled by Ubisoft and based on one of the company's video-game titles. IFC picked up U.S. rights to the film ahead of Berlin.

Finished films are at a premium, especially with fewer movies available: The 2021 Berlin festival lineup is half the size of last year's, and it is slim pickings at the market as well. The difficulty of getting — or affording — COVID-19 insurance has meant most big-budget productions have been put on ice.

"Unless you can shoot in a place like Australia or New Zealand, where the COVID infection [rate] is so low you can get coverage, the cost of insurance is prohibitively expensive – particularly for lower-budget films," says Stuart Ford, CEO of AGC Studios, which is shooting its big AFM pre-sale title, Dave Batista starrer The Universe's Most Wanted, Down Under this summer. "In most cases, financiers are having to bankroll films themselves, and take on that risk. So there's a move towards smaller movies that can be made more nimbly."

AGC has pre-sold Inferno, a big-budget sci-fi murder mystery from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp with Taylor Kitsch attached to star but, "when it became obvious it wasn't possible to get that made," Ford says, Blomkamp shifted gears and churned out supernatural horror title Demonic, a sub-$10 million feature shot in secret in British Columbia last year with a mostly Canadian cast and crew. Now wrapped, AGC and ICM Partners are screening Demonic for buyers at the EFM.

After a year of cinema lockdowns, independent distribution models, which globally still rotate around the axis of theatrical release, are also changing. Following the U.S. market, which has embraced premium VOD and cross-platform bows as a means to get movies out to audiences stuck at home, international buyers are beginning to loosen up.

"We've moved on from the question: 'Is this a theatrical film or is it a SVOD release?' That's just not relevant anymore," says Alison Thompson of Cornerstone, whose EFM slate includes two New Zealand features: the comedy Nude Tuesday and the biopic Whina starring Rena Owen.

Ford of AGC notes that bigger international buyers are no longer in lock-step with the U.S. theatrical market, but are willing "to take a more flexible approach" to distribution in order "to keep the deals flowing."

In the few countries where theaters are open and operating at close to full capacity —including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan — buyers see a window of opportunity for smaller indie films before the U.S. opens up and studios start to roll-out their blockbusters.

"Many titles, which weren't anticipating a theatrical release, can do substantial business in places where theaters are open," says Garrett, pointing to Mister Smith's low-budget horror title Wrong Turn from Constantin Film, which has grossed more than $1 million in Australia.

When it comes to international releases of big U.S. titles, however, most sellers admit they are still holding back movies until they can manage a wide theatrical bow stateside. Explains Millennium Media President Jeffrey Greenstein, on why he's holding back its (finished and pre-sold) action-comedy The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard starring Salma Hayek, Ryan Reynolds, and Samuel L. Jackson: "Until Australia can do $176 million at the box office, we will be holding back until the U.S. release."