A new year, a new start to the film distribution travelling circus at European Film Market 2017. What were the latest trends and hot projects? Which two films from 2016 are defining the new projects on the market?

Berlin was a subdued market. It lacked last year’s big marquee titles like Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky or the George Clooney directed Coen Brothers project Suburbicon. Chatting to my distributor clients and colleagues, there was a shortage of projects that stood out as the complete package – great script, proven director and bankable star.

Top Titles

Like clockwork, there was the new Liam Neeson action from Studiocanal. This one’s called Hard Powder, but it’s not exactly business as usual. Yes, there’s guns and fatherhood and revenge. But if you take a traditional Liam Neeson action movie, add a dash of Tarantino or Martin McDonaugh, you start to get a feel for Hard Powder. 

Neeson stars as Nels, an upright snowplow driver, awarded a Citizen of the Year prize by his glitzy Colorado ski town, whose life is turned upside down when his son is murdered by a powerful local drug kingpin.

The synopsis continues: “Fueled by an unwavering drive for vengeance and armed with heavy machinery, this unlikely hero sets out to dismantle the cartel with extreme prejudice, and he’s not stopping until he gets to the top of the food chain”

Hell, how often is a snowplow front and centre in a movie? Regular Tarantino collaborator Michael Shamberg is producing and the film’s nearly sold out worldwide.

The other major buzz title was screenwriter Drew Pearce directorial debut Hotel Artemis. One of my favourite reads at the market, it has a similar feel to John Wick; a vibrant criminal world with its own rules and fantastic characters.

Jodie Foster plays The Nurse, who runs an underground hospital for Los Angeles’ most sinister criminals, and finds that one of her patients is actually there to assassinate another.

It drew attention from major distributors and tastemakers. With a stellar pedigree as a screenwriter and a strong showing in his Marvel one shot All Hail The King, it’s one to track.

Zooming out, what were the wider trends at European Film Market 2017?

Golden Oldies

Who still goes to the cinema and doesn’t download? The over 60s. Never a business to miss an opportunity, EFM had a plethora of films targeted at the grey pound.

Following the success of The Best Exotic Marigold and others, the formula seems to be feel good film plus British Dame equals box office success. Financiers and distributors are fond of this niche, which can be shot at a price with older stars that are becoming bankable names.

There’s a slew of titles hoping to strike gold in 2017.

Independent are selling The Time of Their Lives with Dame Joan Collins and Pauline Collins, which Universal pre-bought  across multiple territories. It’ll be hitting screens in the UK on the 3rd March.

Bac Film had promo footage for Paolo Virzi’s first English language feature The Leisure Seeker with Dame Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland. Sony Pictures grabbed it last year for the US and other territories about “a runaway couple as they go on an unforgettable cross-country journey in their vintage camper to escape the suffocating care of their doctors and grown children, while recapturing their passion for life and love for one another.”

Timothy Spall and Imelda Staunton in Richard Lonecraine’s Finding Your Feet

Protagonist are selling Finding Your Feet with Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie and Joanna Lumley. No Dames in this one, but eOne took UK, Canada and Australia/New Zealand back in Cannes when the project launched and sales are strong in other territories.

Diane Lane and Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead

eOne know their market and also have Hampstead from Cornerstone, a romantic drama Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. It sold to Splendid (Germany, Benelux), Kino Swiat (Poland), Odeon (Greece), former Yugoslavia (Discovery) and Singapore (Shaw).

IM Global have Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, with a cast that features Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s based on the true story of  young Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner who fell in love with older Oscar winning Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, best known for Crossfire, The Bad And The Beautiful and Oklahoma!

Adapted from Turner’s memoir, Paul McGuigan directs and Barbara Broccoli is producing with Colin Vaines. Production wrapped last year in Liverpool and Lionsgate are releasing later this year in the UK.

Films to track for this audience for 2018/2019 include Rocket Science’s The Old Man and the Gun from David Lowery with Robert Redford and Casey Affleck.

It’s a lovely script – Catch Me If You Can meets Hell or High Water, inspired by the true story of Forrest Tucker (Redford), an elderly outlaw with 18 successful prison breaks and a lifetime of bank robberies to his name who decides to spice things up with one last heist.

Then there’s FilmNation’s The Sense of An Ending with The Lunchbox’s Ritesh Batra directing Jim Broadbent in a script adapted from Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novel.

It’ll be a strong year for counter programming, with cinemas scheduling these films to make the most of day time admissions from retirees.

The Arrival Effect

Arrival was a game changer and its impact looms large on the market. Independently financed, with a reported production budget of $47M, the film racked up both an impressive global box office of $193M and critical acclaim.

With director Denis Villeneuve set to direct both Blade Runner and Dune, it’s sci-fi’s time in the sun. Androids and aliens featured highly for pre-sale, with sci-fi that was smart, resonant and escapist.

Hot titles included Participant’s Captive State, Rise of the Planet of the Apes Rupert Wyatt’s newest film.

For almost a decade since the occupation, an underground network of militants, spearheaded by mysterious resistance leader PHOENIX, has awaited an opportunity to overthrow their rarely seen alien overlords. Veteran police officer WILLIAM MULLIGAN (John Goodman) makes the hunt for the elusive Phoenix his personal mission, finding comfort in the arms of JANE DOE (Vera Farmiga), with whom he shares a passion for the future of their now decimated city. Co-conspirators RITTENHOUSE and ELLISON set the stage for a violent uprising, recruiting GABRIEL FRAZER (Ashton Sanders), a young man who lost his parents during the invasion, to deliver a crucial message. As Gabriel is unknowingly drawn into the rebels’ inner circle, Mulligan becomes convinced that he holds the key to flushing out Phoenix’s identity.

It’s a cracking script which explores civil rights and the surveillance state. The ensemble includes Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders. His relationship with his brother is at the heart of the film.

Good Universe presented Extinction. Framed as the first film in a franchise, it was co-written by Arrival scribe Eric Heisserer. Up and coming Aussie director Ben Young is directing and Michael Peña and Morena Baccarin are slated to star.

Who is Peter Hart? How did he know they were coming?

Like so many of us, Peter lives an ordinary existence, going to the same job, waking up in the same bed, asking himself if this is all there is to life? Until he starts to experience haunting dreams of a cataclysmic invasion that wipes out the world as he knows it. Increasingly affected by these nightmares he struggles to maintain his relationship with his family.

When his visions come true and an invading force lands with all the brutality he has foreseen, he must reconnect with his family to save their lives. Through their extraordinary journey of survival, he comes to realize the power of love and accept the stunning reality of who he really is.

Their other sci-fi offering Hummingbird saw buyers flock. Video game directors Marcus Kryler and Fredrik Åkerström, best known for EA’s Battlefield 1, are making their first foray into features with this sci-fi action thriller with Zoe Salanda. 

Fearless, beautiful and lethal, London (Zoe Saldana) is a weapon. An operative for a top-secret security force she executes her missions with brutal efficiency and doesn’t question her orders. Sent on a mission to kill a hacker named Alex, he unlocks a secret that forces London to confront her true identity.

At its best, the genre offers huge scope to explore allegories and spark discussion. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of it in the next four years. Unlike horror, sci-fi can and does play on tv, making it the current genre of choice.

In Love With La La Land – Is The Musical Back?

The other smash looming over the market was La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s crowd pleasing song and dance number scaled dizzying heights at the global box office. The current global gross stands at $339M, on a budget of $30M and it’s a hotly tipped awards contender.

Inspired by La La Land, there were a number of music based projects hoping to strike the right chord with audiences.

Sierra Affinity were pre-selling Rooney Mara starrer Vox Lux. It tells the story of Celeste, a young woman who survives a traumatic shooting and goes on to become an international pop sensation.

Brady Corbet is set to direct, Killer Films are producing alongside Three Six Zero Entertainment and Bold Films and SIA will compose the soundtrack and original songs for the movie.

Max Minghella is making his directorial debut with Teen Spirit, a script he penned himself, sold by Mister Smith.

VIOLET is a 16-year-old teenager living in a rural European town with her mother MARLA. She has always dreamt of being a singer, and leaving her current life behind. But her mother does not support her dream and would prefer that she pursue her singing in the church choir. Hope arrives in the form of a national singing competition – TEEN STAR SEARCH. Filled with self-doubt and apprehension, she hesitantly decides to audition but cannot perform without a guardian. Desperate, she enlists the help of VLAD, a heavy-drinking local at the bar where she works. Together, they defeat all odds and make it to the International Final in London where she is faced with stiff competition. Violet must quickly learn to overcome her insecurities and allow her true talent to shine through.

Elle Fanning is attached to star and La La Land music producer Marius De Vries and music supervisor Steven Gizicki are teaming up again to provide music.

Leos Carax’s Annette launched in AFM and is set to star Adam Driver and Rihanna. Carax co-wrote the script with US cult band Sparks, who will also provide music for the soundtrack. It’s a love story, with Driver to play a stand up comedian and the female lead (once floated to be Rooney Mara) will be an opera singer. They’re on track for a Cannes 2018 premiere, with much of the Holy Motors crew reuniting for the film.

La La Land was lightening in a bottle from one of the best new directors working today. It’ll be tough to replicate its success, but for now, musicals are back in vogue.

War – What Is It Good For?

Movie settings apparently. World War One and Two seemed to be absolutely everywhere. There’s a battalion of films coming out and on pre-sale in 2017.

Some are straight up war movies, others are thrillers like Anthropoid or dramas.

Hanway’s Their Finest opens in the UK through Lionsgate in April and is another film that will play well to the grey pound audience.

Lone Scherfig directs Gemma Arteton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy in a story about a British film crew attempts to boost morale during World War II by making a propaganda film after the Blitzkrieg.

The Man With The Iron Heart is Cédric Jimenez’s take on the Anthropoid operation, the Czech mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the SS, the Gestapo, and the architect of the “Final Solution.

Sony Pictures seized worldwide rights to FilmNation’s Tom Hanks WW2 drama Greyhound in Berlin. Hanks wrote the script and Aaron Schneider will direct. Hanks will play a career naval officer given command of destroyer “Greyhound” who has to battle both the enemy and his own self doubt.

Mister Smith showed footage of Terrence Malick’s latest film Radegund. Based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (portrayed by August Diehl), an Austrian solider who became a conscientious objector during World War II and was sentenced to death at age 36 for his actions.  Malick penned the script, which is told through the real wartime letters between Jaegerstaetter and his wife.

It’s typical Malick fare and will no doubt resonant in current times, but the question will be if it can replicate the success of The Thin Red Line.

Metro had promo footage for Journey’s End, adapted from the R.C. Sheriff play, directed by Saul Dibbs. Set in a dugout in Aisne in 1918, it tells the story of a group of British officers, led by the mentally disintegrating young officer Stanhope, variously awaiting their fate.

Cast includes Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Sam Claflin, Tom Sturridge and Toby Jones and it looked strong.

The challenge with war films is to tell a new story in this environment. There are some giants in the genre from Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line, Schlinder’s List. Which is why I’m most excited about Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha’s upcoming diverse and different World War projects.

Asante’s When Hands Touch with Amandla Stenberg and George Mackay is a romance drama about Leyna, a 15 year old biracial German girl who falls in love with the son of a prominent SS officer. The first look image of the film was greeted with controversy online about a “Nazi romance”, which Asante felt moved to address.

Gurinder Chadha announced Song For A Spy, set in 1943 wartime France and Germany about an Indian woman who worked as a British secret agent. Farrukh Dhondy wrote the script no doubt inspired by the remarkable true story Noor Inayat Khan.

War films tend to go in waves and I suspect Hacksaw Ridge was the current peak. With the above projects in the pipeline, we’ll get to saturation point soon, which will leave the war movie in a lull for a few years until a new exciting project kicks off the cycle again.

Amazon and Netflix

The digital giants were coming off a buying spree at Sundance snapping up many projects that launched in Berlin last year.

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick

In Park City, Amazon snatched up Judd Apatow produced rom-com The Big Sick for a cool $12M. It stars Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote with his girlfriend Emily Gordon about their real life relationship.

I couldn’t be more delighted. It was my personal favourite project in Berlin 2016.

Pakistani Muslim boy meets girl. Relationship and culture clash ensues. Boy loses girl. Girl falls into coma after contracting life threatening illness. Boy has to win over girl’s parents, confront his own and save the relationship. If she wakes up.

Lionsgate are partnering with Amazon for a wide theatrical summer release. Genuinely funny and heartwarming, this could be the film we need this year.

Netflix’s big marquee buy at Sundance was Dee Rees’ Mudbound. They grabbed the period drama for $12.5M and are positioning it for an awards run towards the end of the year.

It catapults Rees into the big leagues. She’d always been a talent since Pariah and it’s fantastic to see her get her due.

For Berlin, the big news was Bankside’s zombie thriller Cargo. Based on Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s short of the same name, Netflix pounced on world rights for the feature with Martin Freeman.

The film is about a father stranded in rural Australia with only 48 hours to find a new home for his baby daughter, after being infected in the wake of a violent pandemic.

The short below racked up over 12M views on YouTube, which is often becoming a useful foundation for the transition into a feature.

Netflix and Amazon’s buys raise interesting questions about the perceived value of a film and the acquisitions challenges for traditional distributors.

What makes audiences go to the cinemas?

Sitting at home in your pyjamas scanning for something to watch, you’d perfectly happy to tune into a film, even one without stars, if the algorithm puts it in front of you.

It’s an all you can eat buffet of content for your £7.49 a month. As a consumer, it’s a lower investment in time and money.

But what would make you shell out the same £7.49 (more or less) to get out of the house and watch a single film on the big screen?

There aren’t easy answers to this. Although Amazon are working hard to find theatrical partners in territories for their content, it’s challenging for traditional distributors to compete in this world.

Why go to the cinema if it’s going to be on your laptop in a couple of months anyway? Which films are worth shelling out the P&A spend for a theatrical release?

My cinephile friends argue about the purity of the cinema going experience. The power of watching something as a community.

But the average public? In the US and Canada, the MPAA reported the average number of cinema tickets sold per person in 2015 was 3.8.

Those tickets skew heavily towards the studio films. For the average member of the public, their cinema going experience is catching their favourite franchise, be that Star WarsThe Fast and Furious or James Bond on the big screen, as part of their yearly cultural check in.

This makes life tough for independent film. It’s why distributors like films with clearly defined audiences. Who is it for? Will it play on prime time? With DVD and physical revenues through the floor and digital deals across SVOD and TVOD not picking up the slack, TV revenue is central to acquisitions.

Hence the popularity of the Liam Neeson action film and grey pound movies. But with a shortage of bankable films a year, many distributors are now developing their own local language content.

Local comedies play well and often have foreign remake value, both in the US and other markets. See the Hollywood remake announcement on Toni Erdmann.

They can often be made at a price, utilising tax breaks and government funding. There’s always a risk but when local comedies hit, they can hit big, and sell in other territories.

The studios are already operating in this space, co-financing and producing local content. Growing markets like China, India, Brazil and Russia are of particular interest. For China, it’s a way to get around the quotas and tap into a territory that will soon be the number one film market in the world.

Local, not global, will be one shift we see for independent film.

Photo Credit: Berlinale 2017 Poster.

Sadly I didn’t encounter any bears on the subway in Berlin.

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

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