"In a word, disappointing," says Strand Releasing co-president Jon Gerrans about this year's winter markets at Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin. "If you look at the number of films that were bought by U.S. companies, it's not much."
"It's very frustrating and I'm getting nervous for the films for 2007, which is what these three markets would be providing," continues Gerrans. "So far, we only have one film out of those three [markets]." In the only U.S. theatrical buy that took place during the recently concluded Berlinale, Strand picked up "Broken Sky" (El Cielo Divido), the latest film from Julian Hernandez, whose "A Thousand Clouds of Peace. . ." was also distributed by Strand.
While a handful of deals are likely to close in the coming weeks, U.S. buyers were concerned about the lack of viable art films. "There have been stronger years," admitted a more diplomatic Marcus Hu, the co-president of Strand who attended all three events in Park City, Rotterdam and Berlin. Hu spent his days in Rotterdam catching up with Sundance gems like "Old Joy" and "13 Tzameti" and meeting with sales agents in a more relaxed atmosphere before "the frenzy of Berlin," he says.
While the Euro-fests rarely afford the rush of excitement for domestic acquisition execs as Sundance or Toronto, even those prior festivals were soft this year, according to buyers.
"It was not an overly fertile Sundance, the super size of a few of the deals notwithstanding," says ThinkFilm's Mark Urman. "And Berlin seems to have been fairly light for titles that are meaningful to this market."
While Michael Winterbottom's docu-fiction hybrid "The Road to Guantanamo" rocked Berlin and made headlines around the world, the bigger North American buyers may stay away because of the film's controversial subject matter and unrelenting approach. Still, the film was one of the few Berlin movies to create a stir and will likely see some sort of U.S. pact in the near future.
Smaller, highly appreciated entries like Jasmila Zbanic's Bosnian Golden Bear winner "Grbavica" along with Silver Bear winners Pernille Christensen's Danish melodrama "A Soap" and Jafar Panahi's Iranian film "Offside" may prove too esoteric for U.S. distributors. "If you got the right critical support, you could launch it," says Jon Gerrans, of "Grbavica, "but it's a tough film, it'd take a lot of money and doesn't have an overtly marketable hook."
IFC Films's Director of Acquisitions Sarah Lash says the company is circling 3-4 titles, and unlike previous years where bigger companies pounced on films like "Italian for Beginners" and "Paradise Now," she expects for the first time the offers will actually pan out. But Lash concedes that every one of the films is being pursued for IFC's new 24-film day-and-date program First Take, not for a traditional theatrical release.
Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman's Panorama entry "Family Law" also generated some praise, but judging from the slack domestic box office of the director's similarly toned last film "Lost Embrace," it, too, left North American buyers wanting more. German auteur Hans-Christian Schmid's "Requiem," a story about an exorcism in West Germany, also had its fans, but none of the director's well-regarded films have been distributed in the U.S.
But that's not to say that the market wasn't busy -- with international sales, that is. "It went very well for us," says Celluloid Dreams's Charlotte Mickie, who notes films like "Offside," Sundance winner "Quinceanera," and Oskar Roehler's adaptation of controversial writer Michel Houellecq's "The Elementary Particles" sold briskly. (The later sold to 23 countries in just a matter of days.) "We had one of the busiest booths there," touts Mickie. "We were completely full all the time." But smaller domestic distributors were keeping their distance, at least for now; Mickie expects acquisitions execs to come around eventually.
But Sony Pictures Classics VP Dylan Leiner says Berlin's European Film Market is perhaps better "geared for specialized distribution internationally." Indeed, the trades reported ample activity from buyers in the UK, Germany and Japan, for example, and one American title, Zach Helm's upcoming mid-range indie "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," starring Natalie Portman, sold to more than 30 foreign territories, according to Variety.
While there was praise for the EFM's new home at Martin Gropius Bau, U.S. mini-distribs say they were turned off by the massive influx of crowds and product. "In some ways it's a replacement for the AFM [which used to be in February]," says Marcus Hu, "whereas it used to be art product. Now it's a mix of art and commercial films. It used to be much more intimate. They all used to be much more intimate," adds Hu, referring to both Sundance and Rotterdam, as well.
IFC's Sarah Lash says the rise in attendance was "palpable." "It makes it definitely worse if you have bigger crowds and they're not accommodated; it can be a real drag," she says. "If you told me four years ago, I'd be having problems getting into screenings at Berlin, I wouldn't believe it."
Lash says she and IFC President Jonathan Sehring arrived at the press screening for "The Road to Guantanamo" thirty minutes early, but were turned away because priority was given to the press. "You had this throng of buyers shuffling our feet and stewing, while this stream of press people were just breezing in. We were treated like second-class citizens, while some blogger from Liechtenstein just went right in."
"It was always a breath of fresh air to go to Berlin after the logistical mess of Sundance, but this year, I did little by the way of drop-by meetings," continues Lash, blaming the venue's 10-minute walk from the festival's main headquarters. And with temperatures hovering around the freezing point, a 10-minute walk on the streets of Berlin in February is nothing like a 10-minute stroll along the French Riviera in May.
And that's where U.S. distribs will be setting their sights next: warmer climes and the hopes of a new batch of worthy films at Cannes. "We keep saying that," admits Jon Gerrans. "We said let's wait for Cannes last year, but nothing came of it. Then we said Toronto, but then not much came out of Toronto, and then Sundance, and nothing much came out of Sundance. It's going to be tough for companies like us," he adds, "unless Cannes comes through."