Will Sundance's Spending Spree Brighten Up a Chilly Berlin?

Light of My Life Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Berlinale

Booming business in Park City and the return of Amazon ($47 million on five films!) could bolster buying prospects for Berlin's European Film Market.

The tight turn-around this year between the Sundance Film Festival — which wrapped on Sunday — and Berlin, which kicks off Thursday — could actually turn into a positive for jet-lagged executives hopping from Utah to Germany if the Park City buying spree helps liven up Berlin’s European Film Market.

This was a banner year for Sundance deals, led by Amazon’s $47 million spending splurge on five films, including a trio of eight-figure deals for the Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling comedy Late Night ($13 million), Scott Z. Burns political thriller The Report ($14 million) and Jillian Bell starrer Brittany Runs a Marathon ($14 million). But there was also plenty of business to go around, including from new player Apple — which did its first worldwide deal for a narrative drama, snatching up Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age story Hala — and from the likes of indies IFC ($2 million domestic deal for Keira Knightley starrer Official Secrets) and A24 ($7 million to take worldwide rights, outside China, on Lulu Wang’s The Farewell).

“It feels good, coming into Berlin after such an upbeat Sundance, like there’s an upwind, an optimism, especially compared to the American Film Market, which felt flat,” says Jonathan Kier of Sierra/Affinity, whose Berlin slate includes dark web drama Silk Road with Nick Robinson and Jason Clarke and action comedy The Heart featuring Oscar winners Sam Rockwell, Octavia Spencer and Allison Janney.

Many traditional buyers in Berlin point to the potential threat from deep-pocketed streamers — Netflix and Hulu also did big-ticket deals in Sundance — but Kier argues that the online and theatrical worlds can easily co-exist.“Streamers are looking for different films than theatrical distributors,” he says, “(Netflix’s Oscar-nominated) Roma, which is a strong theatrical film, is the exception, not the rule.”

And strong theatrical films is what everyone in Berlin will be looking for.

“A strong performance in cinemas has become more important than ever,” says Andrew Ernster, who buys films for the Netherlands for Splendid Media. “SVOD has become good business but streaming revenues follow theatrical performance. If you don’t have a strong release, you don’t get the streaming money down the line.”

“Buyers would like to do fewer pre-buys, to take on less risk, but they are realizing that if they don’t pre-buy, they won’t get the best product and a streamer could come in and buy it out from under them,”adds Glen Basner of FilmNation, which pre-sold Late Night worldwide before its Sundance premiere (and mega domestic deal with Amazon).

On the high-end side of the indie business, the pickings in Berlin are slim. Lionsgate’s Rian Johnson-Daniel Craig murder mystery Knives Out, AGC International’s YA sci-fi thriller Voyagers and IMR International’s paramedic drama Black Flies starring Mel Gibson and Tye Sheridan are among the handful of mainstream movies that could generate major presales this EFM. Expect U.S. business to be slow, though domestic buyers will be taking a close look at Casey Affleck’s feature directorial debut Light of My Life — a postapocalyptic father-daughter story in which the Manchester by the Sea actor also stars — which premieres in Berlin’s Panorama section and which Sierra/Affinity and Endeavor Content are selling.

“There are a half-dozen big projects in Berlin and I’m sure they will sell out,” says AGC boss Stuart Ford. “For the rest, for the smaller, generic films with little to distinguish themselves, it will be tough times.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 7 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.