European Film Market to Open in Berlin Thursday With New Confidence

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

After two years of economic turmoil, the global trade in movies is re-emerging.

BERLIN -- True grit, sense and sensibilities are this year's requirements for dealmakers landing in Berlin for the European Film Market, which swings open its big doors for business Thursday.

After two years of confidence-sapping economic turmoil and still no sign of the digital dollar cash cow to bolster sales figures, the global trade in movies has emerged leaner, meaner and more calculating than ever.

The mood is enhanced by the perception that several high-profile awards movies -- The Fighter, The King's Speech, Black Swan -- were independently financed. And not only are they getting plaudits, but they are also garnering box-office bucks.

"People are succeeding," according to one head of an agency's indie arm. "Look at those movies. These are quality movies, and they were independently financed. It shows you can succeed."

But many producers are sounding a more cautious note. While some indie features are delivering at the till, ancillary revenues continue to shrink, with TV channels buying less, DVD returns squeezed and VOD still delivering digital pennies to replace the analogue dollars it displaced.

"Speaking of a crisis makes it sound so dramatic, but the financial crunch isn't over yet," said Jan Mojto of Germany's EOS. "It used to be you could finance almost any film with backing from European television, but that has become much harder. The old financing models are breaking down, and there is no new financing model to replace them."

With healthy dealmaking at Sundance melting into the memory, the EFM marks the year's first major global test bed for the hard-edged optimism among buyers and sellers alike.

Former Filmax International director Vicente Canales, who exited the Spanish indie giant to set up his own sales banner Film Factory Entertainment, is wary of the prospects for midrange or undefined projects.

"The market is working very well for big films and for special or different films, regardless of the budget," Canales said. "The midrange or undefined product is what's very complicated to sell. Distributors are conservative, and if they have any doubts, they'll wait to see the finished film."

Canales' debut sales slate in Berlin includes Dick Mass' Saint and Daniel Sanchez Arevalo's Cousinhood.

Alexander van Dulmen of Berlin-based A Company is also cautiously optimistic ahead of the EFM, noting that most markets in Eastern Europe where A Company does its business have bounced back.

"There are more, and more interesting, projects for presale this year than I'd expected," van Dulmen said. "And the ones that have cast attached have big names. The only thing really missing is horror. We don't see any high-end U.S. horror titles like the Saw films, which have done so well for us in the past."

Market optimism is born out in the EFM's hard data this year. Attendance has jumped some 250 to 6,700, with nearly 100 more buyers in town.

"I've noticed screenings are getting fuller and fuller," Canales said.

"You can't say we are back to the years of plenty," added EFM director Beki Probst, "but you are starting to see a recovery. If companies used to send five people and during the crises they sent one or two, they are sending three this year."

Sales veteran Fortissimo, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is bound to have a busy EFM, with several buzz-worthy titles, including David Geib's documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi unspooling in Berlin's Culinary Cinema sidebar attracting hungry buyers after a successful outing during November's American Film Market. Fortissimo also has Iwai Shunji's English-language Vampire and will be screening eight minutes of footage from Bob Marley documentary Marley, directed by Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald, on its eclectic sales slate.

Fortissimo is also coming off the global sales success of Winter's Bone. But company chairman Michael Werner isn't quite ready to announce the crisis over.

"Despite some successes, there are still far more films that don't work than films that do work," he said. "So buyers are still quite cautious."

For now, however, the optimists seem to have the upper hand. As one U.S. agency chief arriving on the Platz put it: "The whole spectrum is healthy. It won't last, but now is a good time."

Borys Kit and Pamela Rolfe contributed to this report.