Berlin market now a must-attend event

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The Martin-Gropius-Bau is booked solid, so's the Renzo Piano spillover building on Potsdamer Platz, and forget about trying to get a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, the Mandala or the Grand Hyatt.

Despite the bad weather, despite the weak dollar, despite fears of a recession, an actors strike and all the rest, attendance figures at Berlin's European Film Market will likely hit another record this year. It's a fact that should remove any lingering doubt that the EFM has made it into the big three, alongside the American Film Market and Cannes.

"When I first went to Berlin, five years ago, it was basically because everyone else was going -- I didn't really know why," says Kim Fox, senior vp international sales and distribution at QED International. "Now it's a must. Two markets aren't enough. We need to be in Berlin."

But while everyone's coming to the EFM, not everyone is happy about it. The success of the Berlin market has led to an inevitable price hike -- both at the market and with surrounding hotels, which have begun Cannes-style gauging tactics on their captive EFM guests. Add to that the weak dollar, tacking on more than 30% to every euro-priced item from a cappuccino to a taxi ride. Suddenly, cost-efficient Berlin starts to look anything but.

"It's way too expensive," says Thierry Desmichelle, CEO of French giant SND/M6. "It's forcing us to condense our trips, schedule meetings way in advance, send less people from our team. That's not how it should be. We feel like we're being ripped off."

"It isn't as bad as the old MIFED -- it's well-organized and professional -- but it is hard to make it work on a cost-benefit calculation," adds one U.S. seller. "We all go because it's the right time on the calendar. But, to be honest, I think a lot of people are looking for a reason not to come to Berlin. If there was an alternative, say Dubai, we'd jump at it."

Part of the problem is that while Berlin's star is rising, prospects are darkening for the industry as a whole. Uncertainty about the future of theatrical and DVD revenues and the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of Internet distribution mean many indies are wondering where their sales will come from and if a 10-day trip to the EFM will really pay off.

"It is very difficult right now," declares Ida Martins, head of German distribution and international sales company Media Luna. "DVD revenues have just collapsed internationally, and piracy is a huge problem. Companies like ours have to be very careful about our strategy and where we put our money."

But one look at EFM bookings will tell you -- belt-tightening and grumbling aside -- people are still shelling out for Berlin. Some 420 companies from more than 50 territories, including newcomers from Romania, Chile and Macedonia, have already secured space. About 700 films will be screened over the 10-day market, three quarters of them premieres, which is not exactly the sign of a market in trouble.

This year, Berlin might even get a boost from the big bad-news story out of Hollywood: the ongoing writers strike and this summer's potential actors walkout. European productions -- traditionally a focus at the EFM -- could benefit if union action starts to disrupt the production schedules of U.S. features.

"At AFM this year, we were very hesitant to prebuy anything, since we don't know what will happen, if projects will go ahead or not," says Yoko Higuchi-Zitzmann, head of acquisitions at Germany's Constantin Film. "We may have to look more to European films if some of the U.S. stuff doesn't pan out."

And, despite expanding faster than an Oliver Stone budget over the past few years, the EFM remains a place to discover films.

"I think the beauty of Berlin is that there are always going to be two or three surprises," says Arianna Bocco, vp acquisitions and production at IFC Entertainment. "Look at last year with (Julie Delpy's) '2 Days in Paris'; that sold in Berlin and did great for (Samuel) Goldwyn in the U.S."

"For us, it's our biggest market, because if you are selling German films, there's no better place for it," says Dirk Schurhoff, managing director of sales and acquisitions for Beta Cinema. "The buyers coming to Berlin are open to German culture, interested in German cinema, and that makes it easier for us."

Nevertheless, if costs continue to rise, the dollar continues to fall and more indies don't work out a feasible online strategy, Berlin -- and Cannes and AFM -- will undoubtedly suffer.

For the moment, however, the EFM is fated to succeed. February in Berlin might not be anyone's idea of ideal, but for the industry, the timing is just right.

"In Berlin you get the trailers from the stuff that wasn't done for AFM, and you get a real good idea of what's going to Cannes," says IFC's Bocco. "By the end of Berlin, I know exactly what to go after in Cannes. And just coming at the beginning of the year is a big advantage, at least for me. I've got my budget; I know what I need in the coming months."
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