Crisis takes steam out of EFM

Buyers are spending, but cautiously

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BERLIN -- The global economic crisis has been a buzzkill during this year's European Film Market. And the barrage of movies whose themes deal with the perversions of globalization on economics and ecosystems have only added to the air of doom and gloom.

As buyers begin looking to exit and sellers wind down activity, the consensus seems to be relief that there has been any meaningful activity at all.

"We're just glad that buyers from the major territories such as Germany are here and buying," one U.S. seller said. "Coming into the market, we were slightly nervous that coming here wouldn't be justified."

Consensus is that well-cast and well-made projects didn't have problems finding suitors. Magnolia Pictures snapped up U.S. rights to the Thai martial arts epic "Ong Bak 2," from Thailand's Sahamongkol Film International.

"People don't want pipe filler," one high-profile U.S. seller-producer said. "We're finding they want (high-end) theatrical projects to compete with the majors."

It's these "homeruns," which in the words of sellers are projects that signify quality productions that will sell for a good price, that are needed to offset losses due to widespread piracy in certain territories and a flat DVD market.

Paramount Vantage senior vp international sales Alex Walton told The Hollywood Reporter that bringing new horror project "The Crazies," a reinvention of a George A. Romero classic and footage from Neil Jordan's much-anticipated Colin Farrell starrer "Ondine" paid off.

"If you have high-quality projects with filmmakers who will deliver, then you see the right numbers from buyers," Walton said. "People have returned to buy, which is a great thing. But there is caution."

Several high-profile sellers opted to wait for Cannes before kick-starting the next round of sales, worried that the EFM comes right in the middle of the maelstrom of economic woes.

"There's really not much in the market," one French buyer said. "I've only looked at two or three scripts since I've been here."

"Berlin is slow for people, and there's no reason to think that Cannes won't be slow, too," Media 8 president Stewart Hall said. "There are few new projects (here)."

But Media 8 said that "Mary Mother of Christ," with a cast including Camilla Belle, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Peter O'Toole, was flying off the shelf.

From Europe, Rachid Bouchareb's competition title "London River" has sold to Italy and Spain, with other major deals in the offing.

Similarly, TrustNordisk attracted strong interest with Christian Schmid 's "Storm" selling to Europa Corp.

"It's been hot, really hot," said Anick Poirier, vp international sales at Canada's E1, who had the luck to debut in Berlin with Michael Winterbottom's ripped-from-the-headlines documentary "The Shock Doctrine." Haut et Court snapped up the work-in-progress expose of global capitalism right after its first Berlin screening and E1 also has closed for Australia (Hopscotch) and Poland (Hagi). E1 also is reporting strong sales for titles "Cold Souls" and "One Week."

Elsewhere, Russia is providing a test bed for the general health of emerging markets -- and it doesn't look good.

"Russia isn't just dead, they're pulling us into the grave with them," said one European seller, noting that existing deals with Russian distributors are being renegotiated or canceled en masse.

"We haven't had any cancellations, but we have introduced payment schedules for some of our Russian buyers," said Irina Ignatiew, exec vp international at German sales group Telepool. "We have relationships with these buyers and we want to help them in these tough times."

But the message that the Russia market is in the deep freeze still hasn't reached some high-end sellers.

According to sources, top U.S. indies were asking for up to $2 million for the glossier titles.

"You can't ask these prices when the Russians are going around trying to renegotiate their (previously struck) deals," one Eastern European scoffed. Those that did bend to the demands of the times were rewarded with deal memos.

Anecdotally, one Latin American buyer paid half the asking price for a title.

Charles Masters and Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.