Berlin Film Festival Movie SalesThe Berlin fest’s European Film Market kicked off today under surprisingly sunny skies. That’s oddly apt for a market that a buyer referred to this week as “a desert.” The exec was lamenting the lack of big-ticket product to be proffered up and down hotel halls here. “Everybody is asking where the projects are. Cannes better be good because we can’t fall any lower.” That’s a pretty harsh evaluation, but one that’s been echoed by others.

night willisThat’s not to say there is a total lack of catnip amongst the pickings here. Some of the projects generating extra heat include IM Global’s M. Night Shyamalan/Bruce Willis reteam Labor Of Love, and Chris Pine-starrer The Line; FilmNation’s A Most Violent Year with Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain and directed by JC Chandor; Sierra/Affinity‘s Jonathan Mostow-directed action thriller For The Dogs with Emma Roberts and Sam Worthington; and Mister Smith’s Jesse Owens pic Race. But the oft-heard complaint that Berlin falls too closely on the heels of the AFM, the holidays and Sundance, is even more of a lament this year. IM Global’s Stuart Ford tells me, “As ever, Berlin does suffer from the time crunch. It’s always hard to get new projects completely packaged.” There’s also a bit of a slowdown in the higher-budget financing of indies, because the pool of actors that make them has shrunk in the past few years. One of the big names that consistently comes up when talking about those top names that get international buyers hot and bothered is Willis. He’s on the Shyamalan picture and also boarded futuristic actioner Vice last month. That film is being sold here by K5 International.

American alligators (Alligator mississipSales veteran Mark Damon, whose 2 Guns set the EFM on fire two years ago, says, “It’s more difficult than ever to mount indie films. It’s not so much for financing. The money is always there. But to get actors at the same time as the director you want, packaging is difficult. There is such a small number of actors that signify pre-sales.” Another exec echoes, “More money means more fighting for the same projects — it’s a feeding frenzy.” That’s good for producers and the agencies, but one financier says it ends up pitting sales companies against each other. “They use the time crunch as leverage to get better deal points.” Compared to last year, however, when some were keen to lay the blame for slow dealmaking at the feet of the agencies, there’s a softer sentiment in 2014. The Solution’s Lisa Wilson, in Berlin with the first international screening of Infinitely Polar Bear among others, says, “An agent’s job is to do the very best for their client… Talent by definition have a certain level of insecurity so it can be them saying ‘I don’t want to commit’.”

cautionThe perceived slowdown in high-octane talent-driven product here could also be a function of sales people being more cautious. A lot of execs told me this week that there was no point in rushing to announce something if all the pieces weren’t in place; many will wait for Cannes. Sonia Mehandjiyska of Dean Devlin’s Electric Entertainment, which has Sundance title God’s Pocket and is screening a trailer from the Martin Scorsese-exec produced The Wannabe in Berlin, says, “Announcements are easy, but to prepare and sell a project properly takes a lot of work and preparation.” And if cast ultimately falls out, “It reflects badly on the salesperson generally even though it’s not our fault,” says Wilson. Clients understand when actors change their minds and attachments shift, but it doesn’t make them necessarily appreciate the problem. Wilson sees the “jumping in and out” of projects as seemingly “more and more prevalent.” In a recent example, Tom Hardy dropped out of Worldview Entertainment’s The Outsider around Christmas time after becoming attached in June. Worldview’s Christopher Woodrow tells me when that happens you “have to shuffle some stuff around. You have to have a really full pipeline and almost expect this is going to happen. If you’re making six to 10 films a year, you have to be tracking double that in the event that cast falls out.” Woodrow is one of the execs who’s “excited” about Berlin and he’s also expecting a “big Cannes.”

Nadine de Barros, in town with her new sales and finance shop Fortitude International, is doing a soft launch in Berlin ahead of a wider push on the Riviera in May. “There are more and more sales companies, so we all have a need for product, so we’re all making offers to similar actors.” When video was still a big piece of the proposition, it was easier to sell, but then names became more important. In my conversation this week with a dozen or so execs in various areas of the international biz, there’s a consensus that this is not about to change anytime soon.

vodThe lag time in packaging has led to a lot of concern on clients’ parts who have been “voicing it for a couple of years now, and the screams are getting louder,” says Wilson. She contends the only way to change it would be “if we allow actors that are not one of the 5 names that everybody wants, to carry a film. Organically talent does change and suddenly you have a name nobody would have accepted before.” But predicting that is tough and buyers are wary of the unproven. “For the most part, international is a year behind,” says Wilson. So, someone that may be considered about to pop still isn’t a commodity that can easily convince foreign exhibitors — and despite the shifting distribution models in the U.S., theatrical remains key overseas where VOD is not as penetrating and television networks program a lot of popcorn in primetime. Another exec contends there’s a “sweet spot” for films in the under-$10M range which can access soft money and spend less above the line, meaning companies aren’t on the hook as much for a big foreign number. In Sundance, one player points out, “there were no real top-heavy movie stars attached so it was a slower process of sales. It was more even keel with $2M-$4M deals.”

whiplash-miles-tellerThere’s still a spot for optimism. Wilson points to the success out of Sundance of Whiplash. “I hope that catapults Miles (Teller) into now being a bankable name.” The Solution handled international on the upcoming comedy Two Night Stand that stars Teller, and its genre label Synchronicity is selling Teller in Bleed For This here.

Meanwhile, Exclusive Media’s Alex Walton had to deal with a tough situation following the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman last week which resulted in the (temporary?) shelving of Ezekiel Moss, which Hoffman was due to direct and Exclusive was selling. A couple of buyers told me they had been ready to open their wallets on that one, but for now the producers will reassess next steps. Before Hoffman’s passing, Walton told me he sensed Berlin was slower than normal, but that there was also “a little less urgency of companies jamming things to Berlin. You want to be well-prepared, organized and have the right material.” Exclusive is screening footage of Charlize Theron-starrer Dark Places along with its Pele biopic, the Woman In Black sequel, and Jane Got A Gun.

Looking forward, Wendy Rutland of Da Vinci Media Ventures, which is partnered with Exclusive on the untitled Keith Moon biopic, is exceptionally bullish saying she’s “spoiled for choice.” She expects a good Berlin, but adds that in Cannes she also plans to be “doing some heavy-duty shopping.”