Buyers at Berlin cautiously optimistic

Decline of big studio offerings playing a part at market

BERLIN -- Film buyers and sellers heading to the European Film Market will be looking for the green shoots of an industry recovery under the gray skies of a wintry Berlin.

"Two years ago, it was the apocalypse, you didn't know who would survive," said Stephan Giger, COO of Swiss distributor Ascot Elite. "Ahead of this Berlin, I'm not hearing any horrible rumors. So I'm optimistic."

One reason for that optimism is the decline of the big U.S. studio offerings. With studios cutting back on output and with some studios still getting over management changes, international buyers are seeing less in the pipeline.

"People are starting to realize they need product," one U.S. agent said. "It's not going to be a free-for-all, but there will be a small lot of projects people will fight for."

But don't expect the kind of bidding wars seen just two years ago when Paramount Vantage was fighting off international offers at the EFM for Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," which premieres in Berlin on Saturday. The worst of the crisis may be behind us but fat pre-crash prices aren't coming back anytime soon.

"The market back then was overheated, now it's healthier. That might sound cynical, but it's true," said Bavaria Film International head Thorsten Ritter, who will be screening Jo Baier's big-budget epic "Henry of Navarre" for EFM buyers. "I have the feeling that, over the past few years, a lot of distributors were going through their libraries, using the films they'd stored up. Now, they need product but they don't want mass; they want competitive, quality, marketable films."

One positive sign is an uptick in the number of market premieres at this year's EFM. Berlin buyers will get their first look at such buzz-worthy titles as Olivier Assayas' terrorist drama "Carlos the Jackal," which StudioCanal is selling; Focus Features's martial arts epic "True Legend" from director Yuen Woo Ping; and IM Global's downsizing drama "The Company Men," starring Ben Affleck.

Katherine Lee, executive vp We Distribution of Hong Kong, is coming to Berlin with Teddy Chan's actioner "Bodyguards and Assassins" and said she hopes to close German, French and possibly U.S. sales at the EFM.

"Europe is a tough sell because, over the last few years, there have been no successful examples of films that have worked in Europe coming out of China," Lee said, noting, however, that unlike John Woo's "Red Cliff," Western audiences won't need a background in Chinese history to understand the plot.

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In co-productions and on the buy-side of the growing China film market, Zhang Zhao, president of production and distribution house Enlight Pictures in Beijing (distributor in China of "Astro Boy") said that his 3-year-old company prefers doing business with U.S. firms.

"With all my respect to the European film community, co-productions with Europe are not easy to do," Zhang said. "They make films and try to sell to every territory. But if you work with the United States, you only need the film to work for two territories: China and the United States."

The presale market, which many had given up for dead, could see a rebirth in Berlin. A test case could be Summit Entertainment's performance in selling the Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts comedy "Larry Crowne." Summit closed a U.S. deal with Universal for the film, which Hanks will also direct, making it one of the very few presale titles heading to Berlin with domestic already attached.

Other projects coming to the EFM hoping to sell on a script and a prayer include Terrence Malick's untitled romantic comedy starring Christian Bale, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem, which FilmNation Entertainment is hawking in Berlin; Hyde Park's thriller "The Double"; and Inferno's "The Kids Are All Right" from Lisa Cholodenko, which arrives with strong Sundance buzz and a plum out-of-competition slot at the Berlinale.

"At AFM, we started to see the U.S. companies coming out with presales a lot more aggressively," said Alexander von Dulmen of A Company, which buys for the Russian and Eastern European markets. "I think it will be a bit more subdued in Berlin but the presales business is slowing coming back."

"The market is going to be quite old-fashioned I think," one U.K. buyer said. "People will be looking to collaborate on projects and see what they can bring to the table for the script before deals are struck. The days of the out-and-out aggressive acquisition have faded."

Nicolas Eschbach of TF1 International has "Silence of Love," the new project from Philippe Claudel ("I've Loved You So Long"), which has "Romanzo Criminale" star Stefano Accorsi attached.

"Presales are a lot harder than before, but actually this is one I expect to do a few deals on," Eschbach said. " 'I Loved You So Long' did well in the U.S., in Benelux, in Australia, so I'm hopeful."

But Eschbach admits that any one predicting a boom in Berlin is getting ahead of themselves.

"To be honest, I really don't know what the market will be like," he said. "Buyers countries are more selective now than they used to be. They are taking fewer projects, often just one buy in a market. So, honestly, I'll only know how things look after Berlin."

Borys Kit, Stuart Kemp and Jonathan Landreth contributed to this report.