Berlin's Berlinale film festival last week set a record as cinema fans bought 334,471 tickets to hundreds of films over 10 days at one of Europe's most prestigious film galas.
But another record of sorts was also set in the German capital, one the Berlinale's government and corporate sponsors didn't bother to highlight with vastly more import than the box office gate.
For the first time in the festival's history, movie industry participants said producers at the Berlinale were catering their offerings to online streaming video sites Netflix and Amazon, designing pitches, and in some cases, films, to the buying tastes of the new heavyweights in the global film industry.
The change in tone was noticeable at the European Film Market, the industry convention held each year during the Berlinale where buyers and sellers meet to cut deals on distribution and production. Christoph Schneider, Amazon's director of content acquisition in Europe, said this was the first year in six years he has come to Berlin that filmmakers were targeting their content toward online distribution.
Streaming video on demand services, Mr. Schneider said, is "great news for producers. In the past I sometimes felt that producers (at the Berlinale) were offering projects that had been rejected by broadcasters, but now the quality of what I'm seeing is much higher," he said in an interview with Handelsblatt Global.
Video: Buyers and sellers on a changing market for entertainment.
Officially, Netflix and Amazon, whose films and series reach more than 150 million living rooms around the world, were not among the 192 registered exhibitors at the Berlinale's film exchange. But their agents were there, and their movements sent a buzz through the stands at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum, a short walk from Potsdamer Platz.
Buyers for the online retailers scoped out the films on offer, and met privately with producers and filmmakers to feed the growing appetite for online streaming content, the newest, fastest-growing form of entertainment.
Unlike local and national film distributors, Amazon and Netflix typically seek films and series that can attract a global audience -- a new dimension that is redefining the mechanics of the film business. A decade ago, the business was dominated by smaller buyers and sellers focused on national or regional markets.
With film-watching habits shifting online, Amazon and Netflix's influence on the industry -- and at the Berlinale -- appears to be growing. Aside from their core distribution businesses, Amazon and Netflix are increasingly producing their own film content, beginning to give movie studios serious competition.
"They are entering the market quite aggressively and dominantly by buying content and covering the rights for almost all of the world," said Matthijs Wouter Knol, the director of the European Film Market, referring to Amazon, Netflix and other online distributors and producers. "There are new players on the market that have larger budgets.''
For a producer or a movie sales agent, a single deal with Amazon or Netflix can mean mass exposure on a previously unknown scale. Netflix has about 93.8 million customers worldwide and analysts estimate Amazon, which has not disclosed its viewer figures, has 66 million subscribers that pay for its Prime service, which includes video access.
In Berlin, some regional filmmakers said it may be hard to compete with their new global competitors.
“Why would anyone bother talking to smaller production companies when they could sign away the global rights for a film to Amazon or Netflix?” said Takis Veremis, the director of Strada Films, a film distributor based in Athens, who came to Berlin for the festival for art house films such as “Toni Erdmann,” the offbeat German father-daughter adventure film set in Romania that is nominated for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Film producers are now under pressure to sign away global rights for big sums, although such deals can come with excessive bureaucracy that can turn a film producer into an administrator, ensuring the product meets the global specifications imposed by Netflix and Amazon. Filmmakers are now also starting to conceive films with global scope in mind, a reflection of the online trend, said Quentin Worthington, a sales agent at Paris-based WTFilms.
“The whole market is changing, but it should be that buyers buy and sellers sell,” Mr. Worthington said in Berlin. “That’s what they know how to do.”
Privately, some film industry officials in Berlin questioned whether Amazon and Netflix can sustain the level of investment they are pumping into their video streaming on demand services.
But others said the new distribution giants offer filmmakers a better chance at success and exposure.
“A lot of care and artistry go into a film which then just winds up on the small screen,” said Martijn te Pas, the head of programming at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. "It seems like a waste at the end of the day, given the amount of financing that’s put into films.”
Amazon and Netflix said their representatives at the Berlinale were too busy for an interview but Amazon provided Mr. Schneider by phone. Mr. Schneider said Amazon gives film and TV producers new freedom to excel.
In Germany, Europe's largest economy, Amazon has more viewers than Netflix, Mr. Schneider said, without citing figures. In the United States, Netflix, which started in 1997, is the dominant streaming video provider.
Both firms came to Berlin seeking content for the German market, and other big European markets.
“Amazon seeks entertainment that’s more specific to the region,” Mr. Schneider said. Netflix typically seeks U.S. material first and foremost, he added.
In the first days of the Berlinale, Netflix secured the global rights to "Cargo," a zombie film made by British actor Martin Freeman, who played Dr. John Watson on the U.K. series "Sherlock'' and Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit'' trilogy. Netflix bought the rights after seeing a three-minute promotional film, industry magazine Variety reported.
Amazon's Mr. Schneider refused to say which projects he had bought at the Berlinale and for what sums, but said he was satisfied with what he had come away with.
He said his latest trip to Berlin was more about meeting contacts – "after the deal is before the deal" – and getting up to date on projects, scripts and finding new material. He said he enjoyed meeting actors, directors and new filmmakers in the festival’s up-and-coming talent section.
Companies like Amazon allow filmmakers to be disruptive and take more risks than conventional partners.
"With us, they can do something new and unusual,” Mr. Schneider said. Many producers want to work with Amazon, he said, noting that while Amazon appoints directors, it gives them the creative freedom they need to do their work, and doesn't micromanage. "We don't interfere," he said.
Mr. Schneider said Amazon was excited about securing the rights to “Deutschland 86” and “Deutschland 89,” the continuation of the popular drama series “Deutschland 83” about a young spy from East Germany. At the Berlinale, he was looking for more good quality German originals, he said.
Next month, Amazon will debut its first German-language film. “You Are Wanted” stars actor and director Matthias Schweighöfer in a six-episode drama that will launch in more than 200 countries including the United States. The movie is about a man whose life falls apart after a hacker steals his identity.
Another new facet is that "You Are Wanted" is being made available dubbed or with subtitles.
“The big question is whether a dubbed series from Germany can work in the United States,” Mr. Schneider said. With the German production, he wants to reach a broader audience than the art house segment. He thinks it will but added, “we’ll see whether I’m right or not.”