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Berlin 2013: What the Fest Can Do for a Film

Berlin Film Fest - H 2013

It might not have the panache of Cannes or the perfect timing of Toronto, but it helped sell titles like "True Grit" and "Milk" abroad -- and is more important than ever to the U.S. movie business.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Jeffrey Katzenberg has long used the Cannes Film Festival to promote his movies in grand style and seduce the international media. This year -- for the very first time -- Katzenberg is taking his traveling roadshow to the Berlin International Film Festival, where DreamWorks Animation's The Croods will make its world premiere out of competition, a month before its theatrical release. It's only the second time in history that a studio animated tentpole has played at the festival (Toy Story was the first, in 1996) and underscores the increasingly important role Berlin can play in introducing movies -- whether high-profile studio films like The Croods or smaller indie fare -- to the European press.

Still, Berlin falls at a tricky time of the year for Hollywood. Cannes, in May, remains the premier launching pad for summer fare, while award contenders go to the Toronto Film Festival in September (not to mention the Sundance Film Festival in mid-January). But Berlin's profile is on the rise as the festival parade gets more and more crowded. Usually, there are one or two Hollywood films that use it as a launchpad for their foreign runs, but this year there are three: Croods, Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects and Gus Van Sant's Promised Land. (Universal is taking Les Miserables to Berlin, timed to its German release, but the movie already has debuted in most of the world.) And there's a raft of indie titles arriving in Berlin fresh off their Sundance debuts. In addition, some will be shopped at the corresponding European Film Market.

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For DWA and its new distribution partner 20th Century Fox, it made sense to spend the money to take Croods to Berlin (getting talent and executives to a festival can cost upward of $100,000). "The Croods is an incredibly entertaining all-audience film, and Berlin is a tremendous opportunity for us not only to showcase a comedy that transcends cultural boundaries but also to jump-start what we believe will be an international hit when it opens in March," says Paul Hanneman, president of 20th Century Fox International (he and his team suggested Berlin to DWA). Croods, about a prehistoric family that goes on a road trip, is voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Nicolas Cage and Cloris Leachman; Cage and Stone will make the trek to Germany. Katzenberg needs Croods to be a strong performer after the 2012 year-end holiday release Rise of the Guardians, which topped out at $100.2 million domestically and $194.5 million internationally, a poor showing for a studio animated pic.

Side Effects, starring Channing Tatum, Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, opens Feb. 8 in the U.S.; its international Berlin premiere will give the psychological thriller additional exposure. Ditto for Promised Land, which needs special handling after failing at the U.S. box office. Promised Land and Side Effects hope to replicate the international success of True Grit. Historically, Westerns haven't resonated with foreign audiences, but Paramount sweetened the pot by taking the film to Berlin in early 2011. True Grit went on to gross nearly $80 million at the foreign box office, far more than expected (it earned $171.2 million in North America). And a Berlin premiere helped Van Sant's 2008 indie drama Milk -- hardly an easy sell -- go on to earn $22.7 million internationally, much of it in Europe. Milk grossed $31.8 million domestically.

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There are at least a dozen films arriving in Berlin directly from Sundance, including Don Jon's Addiction, directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt opposite Scarlett Johansson; Richard Linklater's Before Midnight; and The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, headlined by Shia LaBeouf. Nicolas Chartier, who financed and produced both Don Jon and Charlie Countryman, says the one-two punch of playing at both festivals provides a potent marketing platform. It also will help Chartier, along with other international sales agents, sell his slate to foreign distributors at EFM. "Berlin is just fantastic," says Alison Thompson, co-president of Focus Features International, which handled Promised Land. "It gives a film prestige."