Sundance's Market Hot Streak Cools Off at Berlin Film Festival

Berlin - Amazing Grace Aretha Franklin Documentary -Publicity- H 2019
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

After the buying spree in Park City, dealmaking at the EFM has been meh, with insiders pointing to the downturn in presales and the time it now takes to cobble together financing.

After a hot spate of deals at Sundance — including a record $47 million buying spree from Amazon for five films — many were coming into the European Film Market with a sense of anticipation and hope that the Park City hot streak would continue. But as the EFM winds down for another year — moving from a focus on big new films in its first weekend to its second week where the TV series business comes to the fore — there were few big deals to brag about. Amazon made another big-ticket purchase, snatching up U.S. rights to Benedict Andrews’ 1960s-set political thriller Against All Enemies, starring Kirsten Stewart. Memento Films is handling international sales in Berlin for the film, which is in postproduction.

AGC Studios inked multiple territories, and is in negotiations for a domestic theatrical deal for YA sci-fi film Voyagers, from The Upside director Neil Berger. And STXinternational picked up U.K. and Ireland rights, as well as worldwide sales outside of the U.S., for disaster thriller Greenland, starring Gerard Butler. CAA Media Finance and Anton are handling domestic rights to the film.

But neither the volume of sales, nor the asking prices in Berlin were anywhere near Sundance levels, reflecting a growing gap between the U.S. market for finished films (the main focus in Sundance) and the business of international presales, which is Berlin’s bread-and-butter. While the U.S. market has been given a boost, and substantial cash injection, by the online and streaming companies — Apple, Netflix and Hulu all bought films in Sundance, alongside Amazon — internationally, the traditional revenue sources from home video and television sales have shrunk, making presales harder.

“Everyone is seeing this downward adjustment, especially in the presales market,” says AGC’s Stuart Ford, which closed presales on Voyagers for several territories, including Germany and Spain, at the EFM. “There is much less certainty and that is reflected in the level of risk buyers are willing to commit ahead of production.”

One of the consequences of this shift — aside from smaller festival deals — is that bigger indie productions can take a lot longer to finance. “The business is still there but it takes longer to do deals. We are working before the market, during the market and after the market to put the puzzle pieces together,” says Brian O'Shea at The Exchange.

But for finished films with a strong marketing hook and obvious theatrical potential, interest is strong. One carry-on trend from Sundance heating up the Berlin market was the demand for theatrical documentaries. Both Endeavour Content’s Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace (which Neon is releasing stateside) and Sundance hit Ask Doctor Ruth — which AGC snatched up for international sales after its festival debut — have been brisk sellers in Berlin.

And for producers, the business, in Berlin, Sundance or elsewhere, has never been better. “If you are producing your own content, you have plenty of outlets, the market is growing,” says Martin Moszkowicz, head of film and TV at German mini-major Constantin, which just scored a Netflix hit with Jonas Akerlund’s Mads Mikkelsen actioner Polar. “(But) content creation is the key to everything.... If you are only relying on selling films or on buying films from someone else, that is a heavily challenged business model.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 11 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.