Berlin fest grows strong, keeps its roots


When you can't book a hotel room within a mile of Potsdamer Platz, you know things have gotten serious in Berlin.

Thanks to the explosion of the European Film Market last year, the 57th Berlin International Film Festival, running Feb. 8-18, is now not only Europe's No. 2 fest, but along with the Festival de Cannes' Marche du Film and the American Film Market -- it's a can't-miss market.

"It used to be you'd go to Berlin to hang out and watch a few movies -- it was a break, really," one veteran U.S. producer says. "Now, you walk into the Ritz-Carlton, and half of Hollywood is there -- Sony, Fox, Miramax, Focus Features. Everyone's discovered Berlin."

Adds Essential Entertainment CEO Jere Hausfater: "Historically, Berlin was the first major international film festival of the year and was the international launching pad for new releases. Recently, Berlin has morphed into a vibrant market, while maintaining its integrity as a festival."

The numbers tell the story. After more than doubling in size last year, the growth of the EFM shows no sign of slowing. At last count, 850 buyers from 50 countries were registered, up from some 700 in 2006. A total of 718 titles have registered for market screenings, compared to 650 last year. Two-thirds are market premieres, a sure sign the industry is taking Berlin very seriously indeed.

"It was a bit of a test last year, with the end of (Milan-based market) Mifed and AFM moving to November," Mandate Pictures head of international sales and distribution Mali Kinberg says. "Everyone showed up, but people weren't sure if Berlin could establish itself as a real market. But last year's EFM was our best market of all time. We sold out. All the major buyers from all the international territories go to Berlin, and because it is the first market of the year, everyone is buying."

Adds Bill Block, CEO of production/sales entity QED International: "You see a real hunger for commercial product, genre product, which didn't used to be the case before Berlin became a real market. Berlin used to be about watching movies. Now, it's about writing contracts and closing deals."

There will be no shortage of genre fare on display this year -- Mandate is hawking the supernatural thriller "Passengers" and the serial-killer drama "The Horsemen," while QED has titles such as the Jan de Bont actioner "Stopping Point" and the Richard Shepard adventure-comedy that was formerly titled "Spring Break in Bosnia."

But compared to AFM or Cannes, Berlin is, for most attendees, still a place to see movies. Even busy executives think the business of Berlin hasn't yet overwhelmed the art aspect of the festival.

"I think Berlin is in the process of growing enormously," says Jean-Francois Deveaux, acquisitions chief for French independent MK2 and a veteran of a dozen Berlin festivals. "You see the number of films that have been submitted this year -- that's because there's a strong market. But I think it'll be many years before it'll become anything like Cannes. I continue to treat Berlin as I always have done, which means the festival first. For me, it remains the Berlin I've come to know."

Agrees Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for indie distributor ThinkFilm: "Mainstream is not a word that applies to my sense of Berlin. What is mainstream in Berlin is often art to Americans, meaning that a new foreign-language film that is commercial there is a specialty import to us. For me, it's an art festival and market as a seller and a buyer."

One thing that has changed is the cost. The laws of supply and demand -- the EFM was sold out by early summer 2006 -- have pushed up prices, but just how much is a matter of debate.

"The costs are going up," Odd Lot International executive vp worldwide sales and distribution Brian O'Shea says. "With so many people coming, you'd expect the costs to go up a bit, but a 20% increase is a bit steep."

EFM director Beki Probst denies that Berlin has gotten substantially more expensive. While EFM organizers admit screening fees have increased "to a certain degree," they argue they are still very competitive when compared to AFM or Cannes. Probst also points out that the market is offering a lot more bang for the buck, including adding three new video studios in the Marriott Hotel and boosting high-definition screening opportunities.

While cost-conscious sales companies shudder at every new expense, the German capital is still one of the cheapest places to eat, sleep or entertain in Western Europe.

"Berlin is still cheaper than Cannes or Santa Monica because all the accompanying things are cheaper," 2929 International head of international sales Shebnem Askin says. "It's a very efficient market. People don't like to stick around too long. Basically, it's the first weekend, and then they're out."

Still, the descending horde of international execs has strained the organizational skills of festival director Dieter Kosslick and his team. With more than 5,500 films submitted for the official lineup, a bleary-eyed Kosslick could be seen hustling from one screening to another in the final months before the fest.

"I just saw Dieter before Christmas, and he looked rough," one U.S. producer jokes. "I was going to push him on a film we want to get into competition, but I didn't have the heart."

If there has been any grumbling this year, it's stemmed from the fact that Berlin's official selection was announced later than usual. Three weeks before opening night, several producers could be heard complaining that they still didn't know if their films had been accepted.

Whereas in the past, Kosslick had to go hat in hand to the studios and the big independents, now they are coming to him -- albeit with demands of their own. "The pressure has increased, no doubt about it," Kosslick says. "Not from the studios, but all the sales companies want to have their films in the official selection. I can understand this, but I think we've successfully resisted the pressure."

One sign of Berlin's newfound independence is complaints from at least one major international sales company, which is considering "boycotting" the festival in protest of Kosslick's perceived imperious attitude, notably in terms of negotiating screening times on selected titles.

Another sign is the lineup itself. In 2006, Kosslick caught flak for programming genre -- some would say trashy -- fare, from Hollywood films like the Vin Diesel starrer "Find Me Guilty" to the comic book adaptation "V for Vendetta." This year, though, the American contingent in Berlin is the epitome of sophistication, with films including Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd," Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," Gregory Nava's "Bordertown," Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German" and jury president Paul Schrader's latest feature "The Walker."

Asia, which many felt was poorly represented last year with just two films, returns in force with four films in the 2007 competition, including one of the most hotly anticipated titles of the year: Park Chan-wook's "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK."

Even France, which had only two entries in Berlin's main section in 2006, is represented by three films -- Jacques Rivette's period piece "Don't Touch the Axe," Andre Techine's AIDS drama "The Witness" and Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie en rose," which will open the festival.

After beating the drum hard for German cinema -- last year, four German films ran in competition -- Berlin has toned down its nationalist pride, with just two local-language titles: Christian Petzold's "Yella" and Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiter."

"You see again this year, we have several first-time directors, a lot of smaller independent films," Kosslick says. "And we have big studio films, too."

After growing exponentially in 2006, Berlin now faces the challenge of striking the right balance between its art house tradition and its market-driven future. But if those sold-out signs around Postdamer Platz are any indication, whatever shape Berlin takes, it is going to be big.