Should the Berlin Film Fest Change Dates to Accommodate China?

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China's New Year's Gala, broadcast on the eve of the Berlinale, attracted an estimated 690 million Chinese viewers.

The Berlinale takes place during the Chinese New Year holiday, making it difficult for the world's second-largest film industry to participate.

The Berlin international film festival's ties with Chinese cinema run deep. The event was the first major European festival to screen a Chinese movie in its main competition — Chun Yen 's The Valley of the Lost Soul (Wang hun gu) in 1957 — and it was the first to award its top prize to a Chinese picture. Zhang Yimou won the Golden Bear in 1988 for Red Sorghum, five years before the Cannes Film Festival gave Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine the Palme D'or (two additional Golden Bears have been awarded to Chinese films in the years hence, while no additional Palmes have gone the Middle Kingdom's way).

Ironically, due to legacy scheduling, the Berlinale also happens to be the most difficult film festival for Chinese industry players to attend. Taking place in mid-February each year, the event almost invariably overlaps with Chinese New Year, China's most important family holiday. During the lengthy festive period, businesses close doors for seven consecutive days while the Chinese populace migrates en masse to their hometowns to spend time with family (effectively, CNY is Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years rolled into one).

"If a Chinese producer has a film in the festival, they will usually go," said one Chinese exec, who asked not to be named for fear of irking Berlinale organizers. But lacking an urgent business incentive to attend, most Chinese give Berlin a miss. "I have heard from many Chinese people that they prefer to stay home during Chinese New Year — who doesn't?" added the exec.

"It’s a bit like Toronto and the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur," adds a veteran sales agent with business in China. "It frequently falls within the dates and impacts the travel and attendance plans of many executives." But unlike Toronto, which Los Angeles and New York-based Jewish execs can reach within a few hours to make appearances and attend meetings, travel times between Beijing and Berlin run 13 hours at a minimum.

In the past, simply securing the attendance of the Chinese talent featured in the main program suited the Berlinale's needs. But today's Chinese film industry has grown so large — and so lucrative — that Chinese participation is paramount for the future outlook of any international entertainment event. Box office revenue in China grew 48 percent last year, and the country is on track to surpass North America next year as the world's most valuable movie market. To not accommodate the Chinese is to shun the growth engine of the global entertainment sector.

The Berlin festival probably won't be making a date change anytime soon, however.

"We are not considering shifting the festival’s dates," Frauke Greiner, the festival's head of press and publicity told THR in an email. "Although Chinese New Year sometimes collides, we are happy that many Chinese filmmakers and industry people come to the Berlinale."

Even if the festival wanted to change dates, available openings on the annual film calendar are few.

"Given that Berlin is one of the major events, a big shift would have major ramifications for other established festivals," said the sales agent.

As the value of the domestic Chinese industry swells — on Monday, Stephen Chow's latest comedy, Mermaid, grossed $42 million in a single day — the country's industry players need more incentive than ever to venture abroad, adds Europe and Asia-based producer Lorna Tee. "The importance of the local market over the international has been apparent in recent years, so many choose to stay home to focus on what is happening there," she says.

The issue is compounded by the fact that a slight scheduling shift won't solve the problem.

"Short of moving the Berlinale completely out of February, a modest date change wouldn't help much given that Chinese New Year shifts dates each year as it is based on a lunar calendar," says the sales agent. "It moves from the end of January to almost the end of February, depending on the year."

Founded in West Berlin in 1951, the Berlinal International Film Festival began as a summertime event before a scheduling change some years later. Attendees have grumbled about the brutal February cold in the German capital for decades, and a return to the hedonistic Berlin summer months has been floated before. But the summertime presents its own difficulties: June is too soon after Cannes; Venice takes place in August; and many locals decamp on their lengthy European vacations during July — and as a public festival, the Berlinale has a mandate to serve the city.

Only one workable window avails itself: mid-March. Insiders say March would provide greater breathing room for the European Film Market after Sundance in January, without stepping on Cannes' toes too much in May. More Hollywood stars might be inclined to attend, as well, were the event moved outside awards season.

The growth of the Chinese film market has already redrawn the industry's distribution map — it may soon rewrite the calendar.  

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