Sarah Lebutsch, David Garrett, Mark Gooder, Gabrielle Stewart, Louis Balsan, Alison Thompson

The energy is palpable from UK sales agents gearing up for the European Film Market (EFM), with slates shaping up nicely ahead of the first major post-Hollywood strikes market.

“There are signs of green shoots everywhere,” says Cornerstone co-president, Alison Thompson. “We’ve such a strong year for high-quality movies [in cinemas], and that has reignited energy in the marketplace.”

“I’m feeling like we’ve got a proper, full-on slate,” adds Gabrielle Stewart, CEO of HanWay Films. “We have an insane RSVP list to our slate presentation, over 500. We’re all struggling to fit in meetings.”

Piping hot new packages to come from UK sellers include class drama The Beacon for Cornerstone, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes; heist thriller Fuze headlined by Aaron Taylor-Johnson for Anton; Stephen Frears’ Wilder & Me from HanWay, with Christoph Waltz playing legendary director Billy Wilder; and Mr Burton, uniting Toby Jones and Lesley Manville for Independent Entertainment.

For many, the American Film Market (AFM) in autumn proved an underwhelming trip, devoid of meaty project announcements and market buzz, as the US actors’ strike raged on (the strike was called off a mere four days after the AFM ended), while attendees lamented the awkwardness of the new AFM location, Le Meridian Delfina, and buyers exerted caution.

“Buyers were very focused,” says Mark Gooder, Cornerstone co-president, of the AFM, “if they wanted it. But there was a lot that they didn’t want.”

“We had quite a few packages at AFM that were already quite advanced, that we in the end decided not to launch because of the strike, but allowed us to start the year with a few interesting packages. I’m really optimistic,” says Louis Balsan., Anton’s executive vice president of international distribution and distribution.

“We didn’t go to the AFM,” says Sarah Lebutsch, managing director of international sales at Independent Entertainment, owing to uncertainty about the strikes, coupled with the expense of travelling to Los Angeles for the market. Lebutsch took meetings online, and is “cautiously positive” heading into the EFM.

“We can see there is confidence to go out with these packages,” she notes. “We’re hopefully moving in the right direction again after the last six months that we’ve all had.”

“Since the strikes happened, it’s taken a long time to get Hollywood mobilised again, longer than expended,” notes Hugo Grumbar, co-founder at Embankment Films. But 2024 is looking promising.

“I’ve never seen meetings book up this quickly, not even prior to Covid. We’re trying to move things around just to squeeze people in,” adds Grumbar, who confirms he has already done a couple of “really good” deals in the weeks leading up to the market. “Berlin appears to be very well attended, and buyers are hungry for material.”

“Sundance had a lot of sales, so it feels like there is good momentum, which I’m grateful for,” says Stewart.

Quite what buyers will be looking for remains the million-pound question, however, there is a sense it’s not so much a question of what’s the hot genre, but what films will fall into “talking pieces”.

“The mantra at AFM, and the mantra at Berlin will continue to be the same,” suggests Mister Smith Entertainment founder and CEO David Garrett. “A lot of people don’t know how to articulate it, more than as ‘theatrical movies’. That can be anything from filmmaker driven, elevated genre. It’s films that will become talking pieces, that’s what people are looking for. Films that stand out and have genuine theatrical potential.”

Saltburn, Poor Things, Anatomy Of A Fall, Zone Of Interest – they are all incredibly memorable films, that excite people, whether people love them, or don’t love them. We think that’s what the market wants – they want something original,” adds Gooder.

La Cocina

Sellers are acutely aware of the importance of crafting a diversified slate – arthouse specialist HanWay is embracing commercial fare, with titles such as Catherine Hardwicke’s Toni Colette-starring comedy A French Pursuit alongside Berlin competition title La Cocina, while Embankment (which has kept in touch with the elusive older theatrical audience post-pandemic, with The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry grossing over £3m last year) is launching its first ever animated feature at EFM, Bollywoof.

“You’ll see from the announcement of my new acquisitions team, strategically it’s important to connect with young producers and directors. We are blessed with significant riches in those areas in the UK. There has been an explosion in the past two or three years of young talent,” says Grumbar, who also notes the importance of thinking “how they [UK films] appear all over the world, not just here”.

“Buyers want something very distinctive, or safe”

Asian buyers aren’t expected to be out in full force, as is the norm owing to Lunar New Year celebrations taking place at a similar time to the EFM, as well as Hong Kong Filmmart running in March. 

However UK sellers are anticipating a good showing of buyers from Japan and South Korea. All other key territories – UK, Europe, Canada, US, Latin America – are out in numbers, albeit some are being economical with the time they spend at the market, and many UK buyers will be heading back early to attend the Baftas on Sunday February 18.

“So many of the buyers are coming in for shorter periods of time,” notes Garrett. “Everyone is trying to squeeze meetings into the first three or four days, and we just don’t have room to squeeze everyone in.”

While early indicators look positive, exactly how bold the buyers will be, after a tricky few years for theatrical distribution, remains to be seen.

“They [buyers] either want something that feels very distinctive,” says Thompson. “Or they want something that feels safe. A middle of the road drama, with A-list cast, would be a very desirable proposition now. You look at the Anthony Hopkins film [One Life] and what it’s done – it’s done very well in the marketplace [over £9m at UK-Ireland box office as of February 9]. The older audiences are coming back to theatres.”

“All the films we’ve struggled on have been between genres,” says Stewart. “There has been very little risk taking, but maybe buyers will take more of a punt now.”

The door is also starting to swing open for younger audiences. “Buyers are being very cautious and conservative, but in the meantime, theatrical audience is getting a bit younger, and that opens up a lot of opportunity,” says Anton’s Balsan. 

The Strangers' Case

Completed titles, or films that are being delivered by the end of 2024, are also very appealing.

“The whole pre-buying model has become riskier for everyone, the ancillary safety nets that used to be there in their legions aren’t there anymore. A lot of buyers would rather hold back and conceivably pay more for a finished film they want, rather than risk pre-buying,” adds Garrett, who is screening five finished films in the market, including Brian Epstein biopic Midas Man, which is on the hunt for a US deal with Signature Entertainment releasing in the UK-Ireland, and The Strangers’ Case, which is world premiering at the Berlinale.

“There will be a lot more finished films screening at markets going forward, looking for sales.”

“Buyers in a lot of territories are struggling with selling the projects onto their Pay One partners, which has always been the big backing number that they need to put the MGs [minimum guarantees] on the table as a pre-buy,” says Lebutsch. “In many territories there has been a withdrawal from streamers and TV partners from acquiring the volume they have acquired in the past, that has a knock-on effect. It’s got to tick a lot of boxes for them.”

“We’ll only know what the market is like when it’s finished. The whole business needs to reset itself,” continues Garrett. “The only way for independent film to have a solid future is for exhibitors, studios and streamers to readjust their thinking and go back to a more conventional windowing structure. You give films a proper chance to breath in the theatres, then have a proper lengthy transactional home entertainment window before it goes onto subscription services. Essentially what’s happened, is you’re taking a premium product and putting it straight into the discount shelf.

“It’s a bit like Louis Vuitton making their lovely handbags, and putting them straight into Primark.”

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