Berlin Film Fest Market Rebounds With Indies That Don't Look Indie

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Netflix and Amazon, which didn't buy one title at Sundance, were more active at the German film festival.

A return to bigger, commercial projects at Berlin's European Film Market, which wraps Feb. 23, has injected optimism — and cash — into the indie business. Near studio-level productions have driven Berlin deals in the past, but there recently has been a dearth of such titles on offer; the American Film Market in November was particularly bleak, with not a single obviously commercial film package on sale for global distributors.

Not so in Berlin. Lionsgate sold Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, to most major overseas territories, and racked up similar business for Keanu Reeves' John Wick 3 and the sci-fi feature Hummingbird with Milla Jovovich. STX International did brisk business on crime thriller Finest Kind with Jake Gyllenhaal, Ansel Elgort and Zendaya; Alicia Vikander's The Marsh King's Daughter; and the Robert Rodriguez-directed family animation project Ugly Dolls, among other titles. Germany's Constantin reportedly won a bidding war for Roland Emmerich's $60 million period actioner Maya Lord, which Voltage Pictures is selling. Several other major territories are believed to be in play.

"[The market] hasn't bounced back to where we were five years ago, but there's been an uptick," says STX international sales president John Friedberg. Another encouraging sign was the Donald Tang-backed Global Road's announcement that it would invest $1 billion in production the next three years.

On the specialty side, Sony Pictures Classics picked up Rupert Everett's Oscar Wilde pic The Happy Prince for North and Latin America; Music Box Films nabbed German-language competition title In the Aisles; and Saban Films took domestic on the upcoming Ron Perlman/Martin Starr crime thriller The Escape of Prisoner 614.

Netflix and Amazon, which didn't buy one title at Sundance, were a bit more active in Berlin. The latter partnered with Studiocanal on Radioactive, a biopic starring Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie, while Netflix boarded the big German-language series Perfume, taking worldwide rights outside of German-speaking Europe and second-window rights in Germany for the dark thriller. 

One interesting trend in Berlin was an increase in female-focused titles, which some attributed to the impact of the #MeToo movement. HanWay saw buyer interest boosted when a lead role in The Hummingbird Project, which stars Alexander Skarsgard and Jesse Eisenberg as high-frequency traders, was switched from male to female and Salma Hayek took on the role as the pair's manipulate former boss.

“We kept hearing from distributors that the project felt quite male,” says HanWay managing director Gabrielle Stewart, explaining the decision to give the character a gender-swap.

Similarly, Cornerstone's After the Wedding, an English-language remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 Oscar-nominated drama, generated strong market buzz in part for its gender flip: leads Julianne Moore and Diane Kruger will play roles original written for Danish actors Rolf Lassgard and Mads Mikkelsen.

“I think context matters for films,” says Jonathan Kier, president of sales and distribution Sierra/Affinity, whose Julia Roberts-fronted Ben Is Back was another buzzy female-fronted title on offer in Berlin. “The political climate at the moment, including #MeToo, might be driving what films work at the box office.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.