Berlin Festival Success Boosts Hollywood Releases, Golden Bear Winners in Germany

Courtesty of Berlinale 2011
'Nader and Simin, A Separation" benefitted commercial from its Golden Bear win.

"True Grit" is the latest box office beneficiary of Berlinale exposure.

It’s ironic!

Germany’s decline in total box office last year may actually enhance the role of the Berlin International Film Festival in the nation’s theatrical commerce. 

While Germany was the fifth largest overseas territory in 2010 for films released by the “big six” Hollywood major studios, it ranks seventh among the world’s largest box office markets – including the U.S. and Canada -- for films of all origination including the major studios, independents and local-language films from local distributors. 

Total box office for Germany of all films last year was $1.191 billion, down about 10% from the $1.329 billion recorded in 2009. 

Of the world’s 14 biggest markets, only the U.S. and Canada ($10.579 billion down from 2009’s $10.610 billion), France ($1.614 billion versus $1.647 billion), and Spain ($886.1 million versus $942 million) were also down from year-before box office levels. The world’s biggest box office winners in terms of annual percentage gains were China (2010 box office of $1.507 billion, up 66% from $906.2 million in 2009) and Russia ($1.054 billion, up 44% from 2009’s $733 million). 

The relatively downbeat German performance puts a more intense focus on Berlin, the country’s premier international film showcase. What exactly is the Berlin International Film Festival’s role in the world of commercial cinema?

Pose that question to a Festival official, and the response is likely to include something about never allowing Berlinale’s programming decisions to be unduly influenced by commercial considerations. “When programming the (Festival’s) competititon (section), the highest priority is the artistic quality of the films,” is how Festival Director Dieter Kosslick put it to The Hollywood Reporter.

The same query to a top international distribution official at a major Hollywood studio gets a different response. “There is just no question that a win at (the) Berlin (Festival) helps a film’s (commercial) run in Germany,” says David Kornblum, Disney’s VP of international theatrical sales and distribution.  

These two views -- the Festival as international artistic platform versus the Festival as commercial export opportunity – were certainly in play in Berlin this year. The biggest of the Festival’s “big films” was Paramount’s True Grit from co-directors-co-producers Joel and Ethan Coen. The update of director Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western with John Wayne arrived in Berlin out of competition on Feb.10 as the Festival opening presentation. 

It was “the European premiere of the film, and a great launch of our release of the film in Europe, with the European press gathered in Berlin,” said Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount Pictures Int’l. (By Kosslick’s count, the Berlin Festival regularly draws some 4,000 journalists.)

True Grit didn’t open commercially in Germany until Feb. 24, noted Cripps, but the film began commercial engagements in the U.K, Spain, the Netherlands and Poland simultaneously with its Festival kickoff. Cripps said True Grit’s Germany box office totaled $4.3 million after just one week and one weekend’s playtime, about 7% of the film’s foreign box office total so far, $60.3 million.

Kosslick and his Festival staff closely tracks how well films with Berlinale exposure perform commercially in Germany. That director Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which played out of competition at Berlin in 2010, went on to out-gross in Germany any of the director’s previous films did not go unnoticed. Island’s take in the territory was a robust $15.1 million, nearly 10% of the film’s total foreign gross of $173.6 million.

Director Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, for which Annette Bening was up for a best actress Oscar, has amassed via Focus Features and other distributors slightly more than $12 million in overseas box office since the film played Berlin last year, with more than 12% of that total coming from Germany.

The Berlinale’s box office “magic” in Germany can work even for winners of the Golden Bear, the Festival’s best-film prize (the bear is the official symbol of the City of Berlin). The citation, awarded to the film’s producer, is determined by the Festival’s international jury reviewing titles in the Competition section.

This year’s Golden Bear recipient, director Asghar Farhadi’s Nader and Simin, A Separation, on paper seems a difficult commercial sell. A film from Iran about the dissolution of a middle class marriage that threatens a couple’s 11-year-old daughter? 

Nonetheless, the reception accorded Nader and Simin was most promising. 

The Hollywood Reporter’s Berlin review by Deborah Young described the film as a “tensely involving Iranian drama with niche potential” and a title that “has the potential to engage Western audiences with the right handling.” It should also be mentioned that Nader and Simin won Silver Bear awards in Berlin for its male and female acting ensembles.

Will the film’s Festival triumph translate into commercial box office? The indications are good. Paris-based Memento Film International, Nader and Simin’s international sales agent, said the film has since its Berlin exposure been sold “almost worldwide by now.” 

London-based Artificial Eye Film Co, a leading specialty film distributor, is expected any day now to formally announce a U.K. theatrical deal. A North American distribution agreement is “in final negotiations,” said Deborah Cukierman, Memento sales and acquisition rep. Deals have been concluded with regional distribs throughout Europe, Australia, South America, Scandinavia and in Turkey. In all, an unusually favorable start for a top Berlin prizewinner.

There’s no question that Golden Bear winners, even though supported by the Festival’s highest honor, often face tough commercial slogs when it comes time to attract paying audiences. But even so, “the hype and the international attention caused by festival films, of course, supports their commercial exploitation,” said Kosslick. 

A review of the theatrical results of Golden Bear winners from 2000 through 2011 reveals that only four titles broke through the $10-million box office mark worldwide. Even so, all but two of the winners (The Milk of Sorrow and Honey) managed to obtain at least limited theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada after Berlin Festival exposure, if only to set up subsequent DVD and video sales.

Two of the recent winners barely exceeded $1 million in global box office, and one (2005’s Golden Bear, U-Carmen, director Mark Dornford-May’s version of Bizet’s opera Carmen set in contemporary South Africa) grossed as little as $135,000. According to Rich Mallery of Koch Lorber Films, which acquired U-Carmen for distribution in the U.S., its limited domestic theatrical release generated “under $10,000.” 

That doesn’t mean that however commercially challenged, Golden Bear winners usually come away from the Germany market empty handed. 

2000’s Golden Bear, New Line Cinema’s release of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (described by a U.S. critic as a “mosaic of misery”), grossed $50.5 million worldwide – not a huge figure given that Tom Cruise is the film’s star. Still, 5% of the global cume came from Germany ($2.5 million).

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s 2002 Golden Bear co-winner Spirited Away had already broken box office records in Japan seven months before its Berlin Festival arrival – it grossed $246 million in Japan – the film garnered $2.27 in Germany, the second biggest of its European markets after France. Spirited Away grossed $10.1 million in the U.S. and Canada via Disney release, and won a best animated picture Oscar.

Tying with Spirited Away for the Golden Bear in 2002 was director Paul Greengrass’ docu-style drama about civilian killings in 1972 in Northern Ireland. Released as a TV film in the U.K., the picture drew a mere $768,983 in the U.S. via Paramount Classics and another $1.12 million in six foreign territories.

Nearly 10% of worldwide gross for 2003 Golden Bear winner, director Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, a drama about Afghan refugees fleeing Pakistan, came from Germany. 2001’s winner Intimacy, director Patrice Chereau’s sexually explicit, English-language drama, drew a fat 25% of its worldwide gross from Germany. 

Germany was less kind to 2008’s Golden Bear Winner The Elite Squad, providing only $83,089 or 0.59% of the Brazilian title’s $14.1 million worldwide gross. The film stands as one of the most commercially successful Golden Bears since 2000. (A sequel to the film was made in 2010.)

Most of the box office action for director Jose Padilha’s drama about corruption in Rio’s police department came from Brazil ($11.1 million or nearly 79% of the total). It bombed in the U.S., as per figures from The Weinstein Co. Domestic theatrical tally was $8,744. But the Berlin Festival’s imprimatur certainly helped Elite Squad’s fortunes outside the U.S. and Canada.

Bal (Honey), last year’s Golden Bear recipient, drew the lion’s share ($821,000) of its meager $1.19 million worldwide gross from Germany. The Turkish title drew far more interest and box office in Germany than in Turkey. 

Directed by Semih Kaplanoglu, the drama about the fortunes of an innocent young boy fearing the loss of his father, is hardly the stuff a fun Saturday night at the multiplex. By throwing its prestige behind Bal, the Berlin Festival exerted a commercial push that markedly helped the film’s commercial fortunes.

“This little arthouse film attracted more than 100,000 viewers in Germany, which would not have been possible without its success at the Festival. This is also true for German films,” Kosslick observed.