US sellers report busy start to 2022 despite mostly staying home for Berlin

February 8, 2022

Sundance showed that distributors — be they streamers or theatrical players — are as hungry as ever for content. Heading into the European Film Market (EFM), the view from the US — where sellers and buyers are mostly staying put — is that the market should be no different.

Most US sales agents had already begun meetings in advance of a focused push in the week of February 7-11. AGC International screened Sundance horror Watcher early for buyers in the last week of January to capitalize on buzz, and licensed all international rights to Focus Features.

Nobody in an independent space that transacts year-round is waiting for an official start date pegged to the Berlinale. “Some buyers are very proactive and have been travelling here and meeting with us way before the market starts,” says Laura Voros, EVP of sales at Highland Film Group, referring to UK and other buyers who flew over in January to start early conversations.

The EFM packages put together include cult thriller White Night from director Anne Sewitsky and sci-fi Proxy starring Blake Lively and directed by Kornel Mundruczo, both from FilmNation, plus Millennium Media’s Renny Harlin-directed action title The Bricklayer to name a few. And international distributors know they must dig deep to compete with the worldwide buyers.

The return of cinema-going is key for distributors outside the US. They have released theatrically whenever possible and in some cases the pandemic has shrunk the exclusive window to 17 days. Dating remains fluid. “Not every territory has recovered completely,” says Voros. “It’s a daily follow-up with them.”

“We’ve all managed to weather the bulk of this storm,” adds Voltage Pictures president and COO Jonathan Deckter, who will continue sales on YA adaptation Beautiful Disaster, which is in post. “We’re resilient.”

Deckter points to the $1.7bn global box office of Spider-Man: No Way Home as a sign that audiences will come for the right film. “We’ve proved that twice now during the pandemic with our After franchise,” he says. “There’s still an appetite for content the world over.”

Litmus test
One of the most expensive independent tentpoles ever assembled, AGC Studios and Centropolis’s $146m sci-fi action spectacle Moonfall from Roland Emmerich will provide a litmus test, albeit at a highly unusual moment in cinema-going. AGC pre-sold most of the world at Cannes 2019 and the disaster epic opened on February 4 in the US via Lionsgate and in the UK through Entertainment Film Distributors.

Moonfall’s international rollout will be mostly day-and-date or follow in the coming weeks. A date for the key market of China is expected soon. While pre-sales work for commercial action and genre fare, Voltage has become less reliant on the model. “For the most part we will either have a movie financed and commit to it and then start selling it, or we don’t start selling it until we’re in production,” says Deckter. Voltage sent out the script on Beautiful Disaster after it started production and enjoyed a “super solid” launch at AFM.

Highland will take on completed films, such as Warhunt starring Mickey Rourke. “Everyone likes a finished film — you know what you’re getting,” says the company’s president of international sales Todd Olsson. “But our pre-sale business is in full swing. All the films we financed over the last 18 months have been driven out of pre-sales.” The company will introduce upcoming crime thriller Muzzle starring Aaron Eckhart to buyers at the EFM.

Meeting schedules are packed and the coffee and eye drops are on hand, although people have grown weary of virtual markets. Americans, some of whom have not boarded a plane since returning from EFM 2020, are eager to fly again. Everybody is talking about Cannes. Pandemic permitting, one industry consultant said the Croisette would inspire “gangbusters” business.

By Jeremy Kay, Screen Daily