After a buzzy Sundance for US deals, attention now turns to Berlin and the European Film Market (EFM), which for the European film industry always serves as the pre-eminent launchpad to the year’s deal-making.
Netflix has been a topic of much discussion for the industry at the past several markets, not least last year’s EFM, when the streaming giant made a splashy buy with its all-rights deal for the Jamie Dornan-starring war drama Jadotville.
This year will be the same, particularly with Netflix going into Berlin having lost out in the tug of war for Nate Parker’s Sundance sensation The Birth Of A Nation, which went to Fox Searchlight for $17.5m, even though - as US editor Jeremy Kay reports in his EFM preview - Netflix outbid its rival with a $20m offer of its own (and, according to some sources, was prepared to go up to $25m).
At first glance this looks like a significant and substantial win for the independent film sector, with the producers opting against Netflix’s flat-fee all-rights buyout in favour of the offer with potential for back-end profit sharing, from a studio with a proven track record of delivering awards-season success.
There are two points to consider here. One, that Netflix may have forced Fox Searchlight into paying an artificially high price, a Sundance record, in fact, for the slave-revolt drama. And two, producers and sales agents who want to try their chances in the annual awards derby have had their biases confirmed: until proven otherwise, it’s going to be smarter to rely on a traditional theatrical route to get you there.
On the first point, headline-grabbing Sundance deals don’t tend to pay off these days the way they once might have, with buyer hands scorched last year on Dope and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. The latter marched out of Sundance 2015 with ‘surefire Oscar contender’ written all over it, only to fizzle at the US box office and fade swiftly from contention.
Coming in the wake of Oscar’s diversity crisis, The Birth Of A Nation has been proclaimed an even stronger best-picture contender - but we won’t know until voters cast their ballots next January whether it’s hype and hyperbole.
What is certain though is that, should the film hop aboard the awards-season gravy train, Fox Searchlight is a distributor with the machinery to drive it further than Netflix, both in terms of campaigning but more importantly theatrical penetration. Netflix’s experiment with Beasts Of No Nation - a hardly-worth-bothering-with cinema release through Landmark Cinemas - turned out to be an abject failure in terms of gaining awards-season traction.
This could be a problem for Netflix as it goes forward, and while it forked out plenty to snap up titles at Sundance, you have to wonder whether it might be looking at its fellow streaming giant Amazon with a spot of envy.
Amazon also reeled in a big Sundance fish, paying $10m for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea - but with a commitment to a significant theatrical release before it puts the film out on Amazon Prime 30-60 days later.
Clearly, Netflix wants to be in the awards game so it won’t be surprising to see the VoD giant exploring Amazon’s model in future. Netflix and Amazon are here to stay, and will be bringing their acquisitive mindset to Berlin as they do to every festival and market nowadays.
Things continue to change at a rapid pace for everyone in the industry. There are fewer UK sellers at this year’s EFM than there were two years ago, some companies are looking to get out of the sales game altogether, and producers are less able to rely on the pre-sales model than ever before when financing their projects.
None of this will make EFM 2016 any less industrious, busy or stimulating, and as ever there will be a plethora of exciting deals to report on and discuss. But the industry must be eyeing the future with some pretty big question marks.
Matt Mueller is editor of Screen International