Berlin market, fest becoming 'must attend'

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BERLIN -- The European Film Market is bigger and brasher than ever before, but is it also better?

This year's EFM is set to break records on all fronts -- attendees, films screened, even floor space in the Martin-Gropius Bau venue. As the year's first major market kicks off today, execs agree that Berlin has earned its spot on the calendar.

"I think Berlin is becoming a must-attend event. All the buyers and sellers will be there, so you have to be there," said Samuel Hadida, co-chief of French independent distributor Metropolitan Filmexport. "All the sales companies are coming in with two or three new titles. There's definitely enough business to be done."

Said Stelios Ziannis, head of world sales at Germany's Kinowelt International: "It has definitely become the third market (after the Festival de Cannes and AFM)."

"Just one look at the buyer's list, and you can see how big Berlin has gotten," Ziannis added. "The biggest addition has probably been the Americans -- they're all there now, which wasn't the case before."

Berlin used to be about mopping up sales on smaller territories and general meet-and-greets. But the number of market premieres -- about two-thirds of the EFM screenings -- indicates that the event has become a place to launch product.

Some of the debuting titles generating heat pre-Berlin are Paul Schrader's "The Walker," David Mackenzie's "Hallam Foe" and Gabor Cuspo's "Bridge to Terabithia."

But some of the biggest deals likely will be completed in the presales market.

Summit will be hawking John Woo's "The Battle of Red Cliff" and will screen footage of Mike Newell's literary adaptation "Love in the Time of Cholera"; Filmax will show the first footage of Brad Anderson's $15 million Ben Kingsley-Woody Harrelson starrer "Transsiberia"; Pathe will unwrap Jan Kouenen's highly anticipated "99 Francs"; and First Look International will drum up business for "A Spiritual Journey," the latest comedy documentary from "Borat" director Larry Charles.

"I think this market is going to be more about scripts than finished footage, with deals closing between now and Cannes," one European buyer said. "The Cannes selection is in a couple of months, so all the films that might be selected are being positioned."

Said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, "It's a great place to go to find out what people's plans are for Cannes, and there are a lot of great European directors represented there."

With the Berlin market coming so soon after Sundance, U.S. buyers seem of the opinion that "there are few quality titles that haven't already been seen there," according to one veteran buyer. Berlin also will be the spot where international buyers get their first crack at titles that triggered U.S. bidding wars in Park City -- such films as Celluloid Dreams' "Son of Rambow" and "How She Move" or the Weinstein Co.'s pickups "Grace Is Gone," "Teeth" and "La Misma Luna."

"I think it's going to be an active market because the Europeans and Asians don't do much business in Sundance, which is the reserve of the international sales companies and mini-majors," said Jean Labadie, head of Gallic distributor Bac Films, who anticipates a strong offer of fresh films in Berlin.

U.S. sales could be trimmed by the increasing strength of the euro compared with the U.S. dollar.

"The strength of the euro makes it very expensive for American buyers," said Joy Wong, head of U.K. sales giant the Works International. "But they only pay you what they want to pay," he said with a laugh.

But as Berlin's market explodes, top-level buyers are concerned that expansion might have come at the expense of product quality.

"(The Berlin market) is starting to get the level of Cannes," one London-based U.S. acquisitions executive said. "The screenings in Berlin are up at around 700, and there used to be about 300. Cannes comes in at about 1,000 screenings. It's attracting a lot of schlock. I think (market chief) Becki Probst wanted to try and keep a certain good standard and level of quality for the market films, but what are you going to do? People will come with whatever they've got."

Marcus Zimmer, managing director of German indie distributor Concorde Films, while admitting that the EFM has increased in importance, added that it is becoming harder to find "that special little discovery" in Berlin as the market expands.

"Berlin now is like Cannes. You are spending most of your time in meetings, so the focus is being taken away from the festival," he said.

But even the critics accept that expansion is inevitable. As this year's market is certain to show, the EFM is here to stay.

Charles Masters in Paris and Gregg Goldstein in New York contributed to this report.

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