I’m back from Berlin and a busy European Film Market, where I was meeting, screening and closing deals as a buyer’s rep.

What were the hot projects at European Film Market 2016? Which actors are on the rise? Why were Netflix and Amazon thwarted on big buys? Are we inching towards more diversity in front of and behind the camera? How do first time feature directors land their gig?

Here’s the latest film distribution trends from the inside.

Hot Projects and High Price Tags

Heavyweight comedies Suburbicon and Logan Lucky  were this year’s marquee titles at the market.

Bloom sold out worldwide on Suburbicon, a Coen Brothers script, helmed by George Clooney, starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. Steven Soderbergh came out of film retirement to head up heist movie Logan Lucky, starring Channing Tatum and Michael Shannon, which saw FilmNation doing brisk business and closing deals.

Hanway continued their hot run of high profile titles by selling out on Keira Knightley starrer Collette, about the infamous French novelist, best known for her books Gigi and Cheri. With Brooklyn and Carol racking up Academy Awards nominations, it’s been an impressive year for the London based sales company.

Demand was high for commercial pictures. Foresight’s disaster movie Category Five nearly swept the board on worldwide sales did Sierra Affinity’s Ethan Hawke actioner 24 Hours To Live. IM Global raced to the finish line closing territories on Keanu Reeves starrer Rally Car.

But there were grumblings from distributors at the high asking prices for premium projects. Many described them as unrealistic for the current market. It becomes a balancing act for buyers. Having a marquee project like Surburbicon can act as locomotive for the rest of their slate, pushing towards TV packages and digital deals.

However, if the film underperforms at the box office, distributors are just washing money or worst case losing big. With sky high asks and projects at script stage far from a sure thing, some buyers are continuing to be cagey rather than overpay.

Why were Netflix and Amazon were thwarted on big deals?

Roadside Attractions and Miramax up picked US rights to Obama romance Southside With You

Southside With You

After an aggressive Sundance, EFM was muted for the digital heavyweights prompting talks of a backlash. Amazon lost out on Jeff Nichol’s interracial drama Loving to Focus Features who took major territories worldwide including North America, UK. Germany and Latin America for just under $9 million.

Roadside Attractions and Miramax teamed up to scoop North American rights for Obama relationship story Southside With You, beating out Netflix for the movie.

Traditional distributors are pushing back against the digital powerhouses, leaning on their expertise in executing theatrical and awards campaigns to score big features. With Beasts of No Nation sinking without a trace theatrically and closed out of the major awards, some producers prefer to partner with the major indies for their release.

Faced with a Netflix or Amazon offer, filmmakers have to weigh up an interesting choice. Take the money and run, or hold out for theatrical and awards glory through traditional distribution?

How important is theatrical to you? Or are you happy to take a higher offer and have your film seen on TV, laptop and tablet screens at home?

Just having Netflix and Amazon at the negotiating table is pumping up prices for acquisition. Fox Searchlight picked up Birth of A Nation at Sundance for a record breaking $17.5M.

Despite the absence of big acquisitions announcements in Berlin, the digital players presence was felt during the market. There were docs with Netflix global buyouts, freezing out TV deals and other digital platforms for distribution. Multi-territory distributors and the major indies are battling for titles to have strong content on their release slate.

One distributor raised concerns we’re heading towards a data driven future. Movie making by algorithm, where Netflix and Amazon draw on the viewing data to decide which genre and stars make sense for their subscribers. See Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six which Netflix reported to be the most watched movie on the platform in its first 30 days of availability and No. 1 in every territory the digital giant operates in.

The problem with that is data’s reactive. There’s no space of the surprise breakouts, the new, the unexpected. Where’s the lightening strike and new talent?

Amazon seem more attuned to this. Veteran producer Ted Hope’s leading the charge at Amazon Studios, with Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq first out of the gate, with a day and date release, underlining their commitment towards theatrical and bold original filmmaking.

This year’s going to be an interesting one as we see their impact on the industry unfold.

Inching towards more diversity in front of and behind the camera?

Pathé are distributing in the UK and France and handle international sales.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom.

Reviewing projects for EFM, I was delighted to see more diversity in front of and behind the camera at Berlin. Here’s to more films telling more people’s stories.

Mister Smith continue their track record for supporting quality films with diverse talent selling dance movie Ain’t No Half Steppin’ directed by Charles Stone III (Lila & Eve, Drumline) and produced by Matt Alvarez (Straight Outta Compton, Ride Along 2, Ride Along).

The movie’s about an ambitious black sorority girl who, in order to get admitted to the law school of her dreams, agrees to cross culture lines and teach the exclusive art of black Greek stepping to a band of wild, Kardashian-obsessed white sorority girls. Broad Green will release theatrically in the US. The sizzle reel was excellent and the choreography’s going to be knock out.

I died laughing reading FilmNation’s rom-com The Big Sick starring actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani who co-wrote the script with his wife Emily V. Gordon about the culture clash and challenges in their own relationship as a Pakistani-born man and an American woman. Judd Apatow produces and Michael Showalter directs. As a half Pakistani myself, I’m cheering to see one of us as a romantic lead.

Altitude’s high concept zombie feature The Girl With All The Gifts brings us newcomer Sennia Nanau, which Warner Brothers will release theatrically in the UK later this year. Gaumont introduced Rochdy Zem’s Monsier Chocolat with a world premiere at the market about France’s first leading black clown.

Pathé are leading the pack on diversity. Their office was a revolving door as buyers came in to make offers on Amma Asante’s epic love story A United Kingdom starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike based on extraordinary true events. In 1947, Sereste Khama, the 26 year old King of Botswana fell in love with Ruth Williams, a 24 year old office worker. Their marriage was opposed not only by their respective families but also by the British and South African governments.

Their line up also boasts Trần Anh Hùng’s Eternity, Mohammed Hamidi’s One Man And His Cow (La Vache), Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Danièle Thompson’s Cezanne et Moi. Bravo Pathé. Bravo.

As well as Amma Asante, there were more women flying the flag for female directors than I’ve seen in a market cycle before. Dee Rees is following up HBO hit Bessie with romantic drama Mudbound sold by Good Universe. Based on the best selling book, the story follows two very different families post World War II trying to make their lives in the Mississippi Delta.

IM Global presented Susannah White’s Woman Walks Ahead starring Jessica Chastain, inspired by the true story of Catherine Weldon, a widowed Brooklyn artist who moves to Dakota in the 19th century and tries to help the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull keep his land for his people.

Oscar nominated writer Robin Swincord directs Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Gardner in American Beauty-eqsue drama Wakefield, her second feature. The picture’s in production now, with Red Granite selling.

Other honourable diversity mentions; Myriad are selling Bollywood set dance movie Heart Beats from Save The Last Dance and Step Up writer Duane Adler and The Exchange are pre-selling Tiger, inspired by the true story of Sikh boxer Pardeep Nagra’s battle to the Olympics.

Progress is slow but there’s a visible change compared to last year’s Berlin line ups. Here’s hoping it translates to both box office and awards acclaim.

Cast On The Rise – Who’s commercial?

Stars’ value goes up and down like the stock market, depending on performances and project success. Who’s hot and commercial is an ever changing constellation. Here are some of the names that kept cropping up in packages at EFM this year.

Michael Keaton looks set for another awards run with FilmNation's The Founder.

Michael Keaton

Birdman was just the beginning. Michael Keaton looks like he’s heading for a full blown McConaissance, with Spotlight and the upcoming The Founder, where he plays Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds. FilmNation premiered footage at the market, which already sparked buzz about awards potential.

Bryan Cranston stars in the upcoming Wakefield with Jennifer Gardner

Bryan Cranston

From Breaking Bad to big screen, Bryan Cranston’s become a bona fide leading man, headlining Trumbo and starring with Diane Kruger upcoming true story crime drama The Infiltrator. He’s currently filming drama Wakefield which will be a fantastic showcase for his talent.

Jessica Chastain launched her own production company Freckle Films and headlines Miss Sloane and Woman Walks Ahead

Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain’s had an eventful week, announcing the launch of her production company Freckle Films. This year’s she’s already lined up two meaty leading roles in FilmNation/Europa Corp’s political thriller Miss Sloane and the Susanna White directed Woman Walks Ahead.

Alicia Vikander continues a hot streak with The Light Between Oceans and Wim Wender's Submergence

Alicia Vikander

Alicia Vikander continues to be the ingénue of the moment, with Dreamworks rolling out haunting four hanky weepy The Light Between Oceans for wide release this year and Embankment reporting strong pre-sales on their Wim Wenders directed love story Submergence with James McAvoy.

Nicholas Hoult will play JD Salinger in Rebel In The Rye

Nicholas Hoult

Nicholas Hoult is another one to watch. Voltage’s promo of Iraq war movie Sand Castle looks strong and he’ll be playing JD Salinger in Danny Strong’s biopic Rebel In The Rye, joined by Kevin Spacey and Laura Dern.

Natalie Dormer heads up high profile projects Official Secrets and In Darkness

Natalie Dormer

Natalie Dormer is crafting her own career. As well as upcoming horrors The Forest and Screen Gems’ Patient Zero, she’s starring in thriller In Darkness which she co-wrote with director Anthony Byrne, pre-sold by XYZ and headlining political thriller Official Secrets with Paul Bettany, Martin Freeman, Harrison Ford and Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Bel Powley is breaking out with Wildling with Warner Brothers releasing in the UK

Bel Powley

Fellow Brit Bel Powley’s star is also on the rise following the acclaim of Diary of A Teenage Girl. IM Global saw strong sales for horror Wildling where she stars opposite Liv Tyler, and in comedy Carrie Philby which is now is post. She’s also been tapped to play Merricat in Altitude’s American Gothic We Have Always Lived In A Castle, based on Shirley Jackson’s classic book.

How do you get to the director’s chair?

For first time feature directors, getting greenlit is an uphill struggle. How do you get people to take a chance on you?

Here’s a trend I’ve seen at the markets. There are more and more first timers cropping up through VFX and 2nd Unit Action.

At Berlin, FilmNation were selling sci-fi action Redivider from first time writer-director and VFX supervisor Tim Smit. FilmNation helped to produce and develop the feature from Smit’s viral short What’s In The Box? which racked up over 2.5 million views on YouTube.

At AFM in November, Content were selling Higher Power, another sci-fi action movie helmed by visual effects artist and first time director Matthew Santoro and produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura (Transformers, GI Joe, RED).

Chad Stahelski and David Leitch made their names as stunt coordinators and second unit action before making the leap to directors with the 2014 smash John Wick. Leitch’s next project will be directing Charlize Theron in spy thriller The Coldest City.

The success of John Wick has helped open the doors for more second unit directors to rise up to directors. Darrin Prescott, another second unit action director and stunt coordinator and a Matrix veteran like Stahelski and Leitch, is attached to direct action movie Live! sold by The Solution.

The industry thinking’s simple. Action is big commercial business that travels well. Logging your hours in stunts or crafting explosions via VFX on studio movies is seen to be a good training ground for the thrills and spills required for a blockbuster. Successful shorts and smaller features can be a stepping stone to a studio tent pole. See Gareth Edwards going from Monsters to Godzilla.

If you’re making a sci-fi or action, audiences expect the quality to hold up against a studio movie, who have hundreds of millions to play with to achieve the same impact. This is where innovation and storytelling comes into play. It’s why The Raid and John Wick were huge. There’s more to a good movie than an explosive set piece or CGI shoot outs and it’ll be telling to see if these newcomers can pull it off.

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Photo Credit: AFP. Pietro Bartolo (right), director of a hospital on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, who was awarded the Golden Bear for best film for the documentary ‘Fire at Sea,’ attend a news conference after the awards ceremony in Berlin on Saturday.

Further Reading

Digital backlash in Berlin as as Netflix, Amazon miss out on titles – Screen Daily

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