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Buyers in Berlin: Bad Movies? Bad Economy? Both?

Buyers in Berlin: Bad Movies? Bad Economy? Both?

At most film markets, Sundance, Cannes, Berlin etc, there is often a tug of war that plays out in the industry trades as sellers try to maintain a generally upbeat tone and buyers take a more moderate stance. This year’s European FIlm Market in Berlin was notable for U.S. based specialty and indie buyers because so many buyers were so down about the marketplace. While pacts often get sealed after a festival and market concludes, for the U.S. buyers, few substantial sales of new films are assured. Some are wondering, is that due to the ongoing global economic crisis or because of the quality of the films themselves?

The highest profile buyers asked that their comments remain anonymous out of respect for the festival and its leadership, while a few spoke more broadly about the changing marketplace.

“Very disappointing,” noted the head of one American company, about this year’s Berlin fest and market. “There was nothing available at the level of commerciality and quality of past Berlin sales to U.S. buyers such as ‘Happy-Go-Lucky,’ ‘2 Days in Paris,’ ‘The Counterfeiters,’ or ‘Walk on Water.’”

“I think it was the films, not the economy,” the veteran added.

“It was one of the weakest markets and festivals in recent memory,” said the head of acquisitions for a separate leading U.S. based buyer whose company screened perhaps one hundred festival and market titles. The exec, who seemed ready to make deals at the start of the event, said that the movies simply weren’t up to snuff. While the company may pursue a couple of films, the buyer said, “I don’t think the economy has effected my decisions as much as the weak product here which has not made me feel there’s any rush to make offers.”

Another U.S. based fan of the Berlin festival and market, who has acquired films here in recent years, was quite disappointed late Wednesday night as the market wrapped up. “I found movies here the last two years. I have not seen anything yet this year.”

Of the new market titles, it was a Sundance hit, rejected by the Berlin festival, that proved a hot commodity this week. While there wasn’t a spot for Lee Daniels’ “Push” anywhere in the festival, on the heels of winning three prizes at Sundance he and international sales company Elephant Eye brought the movie to the market, filled private screenings and made deals for distribution in the UK, Australia, Scandinavia and the Middle East.

Among other titles, buyers are expected to acquire Berlin competition films like the poorly received “Rage” by Sally Potter, “Mammoth” by Lukas Moodysson, and “Happy Tears” by MItchell Lichtenstein, simply based on the star power in each film, but all three films were not well received by critics and none seemed to ignite passion among the buyers.

“Traffic was down but the serious buyers and smart survivors were diligently pursuing deals,” noted longtime event attendee Richard Lorber, citing an, “openness of sellers to explore non traditional deal structures especially if there was promise of new, alternative revenue streams.”

“The auteurs were certainly in force this year, and while there were quite a few disappointments, it certainly was a buyer’s market with sellers forced to rethink pricing in the U.S. market,” offered Strand Releasing co-president Marcus Hu. “It was certainly quieter this year,” he continued, “Sellers were eager to negotiate, but there was this sense of unease with the wobbily economy.”

Concluding the thought he said, “I definitely think that U.S. specialty buyers will be dictating the pricing for smaller films in the marketplace.”

Half way through the Berlinale, as critics and buyers saw more and more disappointing films, all eyes began to turn to Cannes ’09, where folks are already anticipating a strong showing for new international cinema.

“I suspect I will ultimately pick up stuff from here but there’s no urgency,” the head buyer for one U.S. company said, “I am more inclined to wait for Cannes where I think the films will be more interesting.”

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