Berlin: Has the Fest Become the First Step to the Oscars?

The Grand Budapest Hotel Berlin Film Festival - H 2014
Twentieth Century Fox

Festival entries are looking to copy the success of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and 'Boyhood' in using Berlin as a springboard to award season success.

Has Berlin become the first step on the road to the Oscars?

Last year's Berlinale opened with Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. The whimsical drama starring Ralph Fiennes as the unflappable concierge M. Gustave, won Berlin's Grand Jury prize, kicking off what the film's producer Jeremy Dawson calls Budapest's "crazy ride," which ended with nine Oscar nominations, including best film.

It was a similar story with Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which first screened in Sundance but truly caught fire with its competition screening in Berlin. Linklater picked up the festival's Silver Bear for best director and the film went on to nab 6 Academy Award nominations

"Think about it: both Grand Budapest and Boyhood were in Berlin," says Dawson, noting that the German festival proved to be an ideal awards launch pad, despite the year-long time lag between the Berlinale and the Oscars.

"It is a great place for getting a film out there and generating attention," he says. "We are thrilled that the film connected with people in Berlin and stuck with them in a way that they still were excited about it when awards season came around."

Traditionally, Berlin has been seen as being too early in the year to make much of an impact on awards season. But Boyhood and Budapest's success flips that conventional wisdom on its head. Not only are the films among the favorites going into this year's Oscars, they capitalized on their Berlin launch to deliver global box office success. 20th Century Fox rolled out The Grand Budapest Hotel across most of Europe shortly after its Berlinale bow, building momentum that translated into a $175 million global take, making it the most successful indie film of 2014 and the number one performer of Wes Anderson's career. "It wasn't just the U.S. or the U.K.," says Dawson. "We saw success in places like Korea too, places where Wes' films haven't had much success in the past."

Boyhood employed a similar foreign-first strategy post-Berlin, scoring impressive results in Germany ($3.3 million), the U.K. ($4.8 million) and the Netherlands ($2.4 million) en route to a $44 million global take.

Distributors and filmmakers coming to Berlin this year have taken note. Possible indie cross-over titles such as Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups with Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, and Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes featuring Sir Ian McKellen as a retired Sherlock, will be looking to capture Berlin's Budapest/Boyhood magic.

It is also notable that the studios, which have in the past sometimes shown the German festival the cold shoulder, have picked the fest for a couple of A-list launches. These include Walt Disney's live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Lily James, Richard Madden and Helena Bonham Carter, and Focus Feature's Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year, which will have its red-carpet bow in Berlin Feb. 11.

"Success breeds imitation and everyone saw what these films did after launching in Berlin," says Henning Molfenter, head of production at Studio Babelsberg, the German studio which co-produced The Grand Budapest Hotel. "I think this could be the start of a shift in distribution strategy that sees Berlin as the starting point for Oscar campaigns. It shows that it isn't too early in the year. If you have the right film, it will get noticed in Berlin and the buzz can grow and grow all the way to the Academy Awards."