5 Key Takeaways From the 2019 Berlin Film Festival
Netflix and China provided the controversy, while television and stronger female representation were the feel-good stories at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, the last in the 18-year-reign of outgoing director Dieter Kosslick.
The 69th Berlin International Film Festival ended this weekend not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with something like an indifferent shrug.
The last festival under the reign of director Dieter Kosslick — who will now step down to be replaced by the two-person team of artistic director Carlo Chatrian and managing director Mariette Rissenbeek — had the feel of a placeholder, with few shocks, surprises or scandals. The Golden Bear for Nadav Lapid's Synonyms — a tale of a former IDF soldier trying to escape his past by immersing himself in the Paris nightlife — was a consensus choice (unlike last year's winner, Adina Pintilie's radical and divisive sexual therapy drama Touch Me Not).
Even criticism of Kosslick — which has become something of an annual sporting event in recent years at the Berlinale — was more muted, with most journalists grudgingly acknowledging his success in transforming Berlin from a sleepy regional event to one of the world's top five festivals with a film market second in size only to Cannes.
The closing night gala was a warm "Auf Wiedersehen" for the outgoing director. Fans on the red carpet, wearing Kosslick's trademark black hat and red scarf, held up “Danke Dieter” signs and chanted his name. German culture minister Monika Grutters thanked Kosslick in particular for his dedication to female representation — just over 40 percent of the films in competition in Berlin were directed by women, by far the largest proportion of any of Europe's top festivals. And, to finish the evening, jury president Juliette Binoche gave Dieter a huge teddy bear — a symbolic thank-you for his 18 years at the job.
Instead, discussions in Berlin over the past two weeks were mainly focused on the future — what will come after Kosslick, who will win in the Netflix vs. theaters showdown and, a year after #MeToo and Time's Up, will we see real structural change with regards to representation in the film industry?
The following are The Hollywood Reporter's five biggest takeaways from this year's Berlinale.
China Has Gone From Big Opportunity to Big Problem
Berlin was the first big international festival to honor Chinese cinema — Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum won the Golden Bear here in 1988 — and the industry executives who swarmed the city for the European Film Market (EFM) continue to look longingly to the Middle Kingdom as a near-bottomless future source of production financing and box office revenues.
But China boosterism — both corporate and creative — took a hit in Berlin this year. Wang Xiaoshuai's So Long My Son, a deeply moving story of a couple tragically scarred by China’s one-child policy — won best acting Silver Bears for its leads, stars Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei.
China's biggest director, however, was nowhere to be seen. Zhang Yimou's latest, One Second, a film set during the Culture Revolution, was pulled from Berlin competition shortly before it was set to premiere. While the official explanation was “technical difficulties,” there was widespread speculation that the movie was blocked by Beijing censors.
Perhaps more surprising, Berlin — which prides itself on being the world's most political festival — gave the most timid of responses. After first parroting Beijing's official “technical difficulties” line, during the closing ceremony Juliette Binoche expressed "regret" that One Second could not be shown.
"Zhang has been an essential voice in international cinema," she said. "We need artists who help us make sense of history. ... We hope this film will soon be seen around the world.”
There was no direct criticism of the Chinese government.
On the business side, Berlin attendees looked on with interest as the Chinese box office broke records over the Lunar New Year holiday, fueled by the success of homegrown sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth. But the Chinese government's crackdown on capital leaving the country continues to cast a shadow over the international industry and stifle hopes of a Beijing-driven boom.
Last year in Berlin, Donald Tang's Global Road, a would-be studio that aimed to combine Chinese capital with Hollywood know-how, pledged to invest $1 billion over the next three years in production. By September, the company was bust.
No one was hyping their Chinese connections at EFM this year, preferring to keep their heads down and wait and see which way the political winds blow.
Netflix Is Winning the War
Berlin saw a repeat of last year's “Netflix wars” — where Cannes bowed to pressure from French exhibitors and banned films from the streamer from competition and Venice saw protests by distributors that Alfonso Cuaron's Netflix-backed Roma was awarded the Golden Lion. Here the ire was focused on Elisa & Marcela, from Berlinale regular Isabel Coixet (The Bookshop), whose black-and-white period drama, about the first-ever female same sex marriage in Spain, was the first Netflix production to screen in festival competition.
German art house distributors called upon the Berlinale to pull the film, and a small group of anti-Netflix protestors disrupted the Elisa & Marcela red carpet — something Coixet told THR she thought was “disrespecting myself, damaging my film, disrespecting the festival and disrespecting the work of all the people involved.”
But Netflix’s programming presentation Wednesday at Berlin’s Drama Series Days was the hottest ticket in town. European producers packed the Zoo Palast cinema and hung on every word as Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix vp international originals for Europe, Turkey and Africa, and her team of program commissioners spoke of all the shows they plan to make in Europe — and all the money that will mean for local producers.
On the theatrical front, outgoing Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick suggested the big festivals come together and decide on a common policy regarding Netflix. But given Venice's full-throated support of the streamer and Berlin's current backing, consensus would likely mean Cannes giving way on its Netflix ban.
Berlin 2020 Will Be Later, So Business Should Be Better
Adjusting to what will be a shorter awards season next year — the 2020 Oscars will be held Feb. 9, a good two weeks earlier than usual — the Berlinale has decided to move the other way. The festival announced last week that its 70th edition will run Feb. 20-March 1.
While the shift could have a negative impact on red carpet action (see below), it should be good for business.
Sales agents will have more time to package projects, or plan the international launch of acquired titles out of Sundance, ahead of next year's EFM. Given how long it often takes to close deals in today's climate, having a extra couple of weeks to prep, hype and cajole can only help.
But Get Used to (Even) Fewer Stars
Berlin this year had plenty of controversy, and many deals were made at EFM, but red carpet star wattage was considerably dimmed from year's past. The only big Hollywood title, and star, on display was Vice and Christian Bale.
Back when Berlin took place in the heat of Oscar season, the festival had little problem attracting awards contenders — indeed, nominees often got the news while promoting their films at the fest. But as the Oscars have moved their dates up, Berlin has lost out. The A-list is too busy campaigning at home to take time out to fly to Germany.
Next year — when, for the first time, the Berlinale will take place after the Oscars — there will be even less, either for distributors or stars, to bother making the trip.
5050 by 2020 Is Doable
The single biggest takeaway from Berlin 2019 — and perhaps Kosslick's most lasting legacy as festival director — is that gender equality in the film industry is achievable. While Cannes and Venice equivocated and fumed — blaming society or structures beyond their control for the shocking lack of female representation in their competition lineups — Berlin, with typical German efficiency, just got things done. Seven of the 17 competition films in Berlin this year were directed by women — fully 41 percent.
Berlin also became the first of the big European fests to publish a detailed gender evaluation study breaking down the gender gap between male and female filmmakers across its entire selection. Of the 400 films that screened in Berlin this year, 98, or 37 percent, were made exclusively by female directors; 146 (55.1 percent) exclusively or predominantly by male directors; and nine (3.4 percent) by directorial teams with equal gender ratios. One pic did not have an official director and a further 11 did not provide the fest with any information regarding gender.
It is refreshing to see, in place of excuses and bloated rhetoric, cold hard statistics and clear signs of progress.