Berlin Market: Streaming Giants No Longer Dominate Indie Dealmaking
As the major streamers tighten their belts amid a downturn, insiders say independent film sales is getting back to its core business: "I see a real return to normalcy."
When, at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, Apple bought worldwide rights to Sian Heder's CODA for a reported $25 million, it triggered panic across the independent film industry.
International distributors who had pre-bought the movie -- Heder's remake of 2014 French hit La Famille Belier was a top seller for Pathe at Cannes' Marche du Film a year earlier -- thought the Apple deal might signal the end of their business model. Why bother taking the up-front risk by investing in movie scripts and talent packages -- the core activity at most international film markets -- if a deep-pocketed tech company can come in after the fact and buy up the movie when it is finished? In the wake of the CODA deal, there was talk of sales companies and Hollywood talent agencies wanting to insert mandatory buyback clauses into indie distribution contracts, treating independent buyers, from their perspective, as little more than feeder teams for the streamers. If they bet on an indie package that turned into a great movie, sales agents could still flip to a streamer after the fact, paying them off with a finder's fee.
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That never happened. Instead, as distributors, sales agents and talent reps gather in Berlin for the first in-person European Film Market in three years, streamers have scaled back their ambitions, while indies are looking stronger than ever. At Sundance, aside from a handful of big-number streamer buys --Netflix's acquisition of Chloe Domont's erotic, psychological thriller Fair Play, Apple's worldwide deal for John Carney's musical dramedy Flora and Son -- most of the action was indie: A24 taking Australian horror film Talk to Her, Magnolia buying Black transgender doc Kokomo City, Music Box Films acquiring French drama Other People's Children, Bleecker Street picking up Laurel Parmet's The Starling Girl and Oscilloscope taking Pakistani drama Joyland.
"We had six movies at Sundance and everyone, except for Flora and Son, sold to independents," says Rob Carney, vp of sales at FilmNation. "I see a real return to normalcy... the streamers are great partners and they aren't going away but our main focus, our core business, is the independent distribution market, that will always be our default priority."
In the end, it's a question of volume. While the streamers are still willing to dig deep when they see something they want -- the Fair Play and Flora and Son deals were valued at $20 million each -- these days, they don't want much.
"Netflix used to go after everything, but now it seems they're only buying what makes sense for them," notes one U.S. distributor. "And the other streamers have never really been big buyers in the [indie film] space. Apple has consistently made one to two big purchases every year when they really respond to something, HBO Max never really bought much, except maybe a documentary here or there."
With dozens of new projects available at the EFM --including a Liam Neeson action thriller, a David O. Russell-directed period dramedy and Woody Allen's new Paris-set rom-com, as well as potential art house gems from the U.S., Britain, Korea and beyond --expect the bulk of the business in Berlin to be indie. And to see less conflict, and more cooperation between the streamers and old-school buyers.
"The situation with CODA in Sundance a couple of years ago was very binary [streamers vs. Indies] but people have moved on," says Cornerstone Films co-president Alison Thompson. "We're seeing evidence in some countries that the streamers are actively engaged and have relationships with their local independent distributors, doing deals that [are replacing] the high-end pay TV deals we had a few years ago. That's encouraging independent distributors to be a little bolder, to bet a bit more on the films they believe in."