Q&A: Beki Probst

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Film has been a part of Beki Probst's life from the start. First as a journalist interviewing the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Claudia Cardinale for newspapers in Turkey, then as a programmer for her Swiss exhibition group, Probst-Kinobetriebe, and as a member of the selection board -- first for the Locarno Film Festival and then, as now, for the Berlinale. But it is as director of Berlin's European Film Market for the past 20 years that Probst has truly left her mark on the international movie business, transforming a small, informal operation into the third-largest film market in the world. Probst sat down with The Hollywood Reporter's German bureau chief Scott Roxborough on the eve of her 20th EFM to talk about how far she, and the market, have come.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you first took the job of market director back in 1989, did you have any idea what you were in for?

Beki Probst: Not at all. I'd been going to festivals for many years, but I didn't know what a market was really about and I was a little bit thrown into it. At the time, I just thought: 'OK, it's a new challenge, let's do it.' And I came here in the Cine Center (the market's original location) and we were just three people. I spent nights going through files to see who is coming and what it was about. It was an apprenticeship.

THR: How big was the market back then?

Probst: Oh, it was very small. It was called the Filmmesse and we had those screening rooms in the Cine Center and the people attending had those little tables and all that. Then we came and we changed this and we changed that. The Scandinavians were there as they always are, all together. And then it was the big days of British cinema so we invented the 'British in Berlin' for all the British companies attending. And every year something has been added. We had more entries for the screenings so we started to used the two cinemas in the Zoo Palast then we made a new studio in front of my office in the Cine Center. But everything was still under one roof, under one big bubble. That is what people tell you who were there in those days. They say, 'Ah, that was so good.' It was such a relaxed atmosphere, it was the Cine Center, full of smoke and smells and peppers. It was a completely different world.

THR: Back then, did you see yourself as a competitor with the big film markets -- the American Film Market and Cannes?

Probst: No. The first I did was to change the name (from Filmmesse) to European Film Market and that was of course to do with the AFM. Because I thought, 'OK there is the American Film Market on the other side -- and here we are in Europe.' But after a few years I had a meeting with the American Film Market and for them we did not exist. For them it was just Cannes and the AFM. But then we became big friends with the American Film Market and have worked well with them and their members.

THR: When did things change from being a small, smoky little club to being a real market?

Probst: All the changes of the market went together with the festival. When the Festival moved to Potsdamer Platz in 2000, the festival took an other dimension and the market did, too, moving to the Debis house (on Potsdamer). Then (in 2005), the whole calendar of the markets changed, the MIFED was gone and the AFM shifted its dates (from February) to November. That opened the tsunami.

THR: Were you worried the European Film Market wouldn't be able to adjust?

Probst: You know, anytime you move from a smaller to a bigger apartment there is a change you feel, 'Oh, how am I going to fill this space?' Change always brings anxiety with it, no? But we knew we had to be prepared and (Berlinale festival director) Dieter Kosslick is a visionary. It was his idea to move to the museum, the Martin Gropius Bau. You know in Berlin, there was a lot of space available. But we knew we had to make it very close to the Potsdamer Platz.

THR: What have been the biggest changes you've seen in the film industry over the past 20 years?

Probst: The biggest change is (in) the way of life. People used to come to Berlin and take it more easygoing. Now they come to Berlin and they are already very prepared, they have the screenings list already, they want the buyers list. There is a great anxiety about missing something. Can you imagine now a festival without laptops and mobiles? People used to talk to each other more. And smoke more.

THR: Do you see this year as a turning point for the European Film Market, given the upheaval on the world financial markets?

Probst: Not especially. We are in a stable situation at the moment. We are the first market of the year so we are a barometer to see how things are going. Listen, until Cannes, things can get better, things can get worse. I mean everyone is standing in front of a big question mark.

THR: There are some that say there's a big question mark hanging over the whole idea of film markets. Why do we even need them when you can stream trailers and whole movies over the Internet?

Probst: It's funny you say that because five years ago, someone, who I won't name, came here to Dieter and me with a little suitcase and said, 'You know what? It's over with film markets. It's going to be all in the Internet, with computers and everything.' This woman has since disappeared completely, her enterprise has disappeared completely and we are still here. Film markets aren't that. Film markets are people meeting face to face, taking the time to meet fact to face, even if they have cell phones. To take the time to meet and network. That's what film markets are.

THR: What are your best memories of the past 20 years?

Probst: There are so many. In those 20 years I met wonderful people and made wonderful friendships. It's been a truly incredible human experience. For me it's like when you have a piggy bank, and you put in it what has been true for you, your friendships, what you have done, your experiences. And this piggy bank gives you a very comforting feeling. You know you have something there that is full of memories and emotions.

THR: Do you have a wish for your 20th anniversary?

Probst: The only thing I hope for is this market goes well, that the films sell. Because if not, you ones in the trades are the first to print on the second day, 'It's slow, nobody is here.' So that's my wish. That this one goes well.
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