The good Germans

Berlin is being kinder to Hollywood fare these days -- but A-list stars certainly help.

Clint Eastwood's Warner Bros. Pictures drama "Letters From Iwo Jima," which will have its European premiere at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival, is not the only Hollywood feature looking to use Berlin as its boxoffice beachhead.

Both Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" for Universal and Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German" and Zack Snyder's "300" for Warner Bros. are timing their international roll-outs around the Berlinale.

Like the Festival de Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, Berlin has established itself as a studio launch pad.

"The studio bosses have Berlin on their radar. Now, they see it as one of the most important festivals in the world -- probably the second most important after Cannes," says Martin Bachman, managing director of Sony Pictures Releasing in Germany. "Berlin is an unique opportunity -- you can take advantage of the biggest red carpet in Germany and, at one go, get the attention of all the quality and entertainment press. That kind of coverage and hype for your film is hard to beat."

But while some films have gone from Berlin glamour to boxoffice glory -- the 2005 Will Smith starrer "Hitch" bowed in Berlin and went on to become one of the year's top-grossing films in Germany -- the Berlinale is littered with the remains of studio bows gone bad.

Films such as 2001's "Enemy at the Gates" and 2004's "Cold Mountain," both of which opened the festival, were torn apart by Berlin's notoriously nasty local press and subsequently underperformed in the territory.

"In hindsight, Berlin was the wrong place to take 'Enemy'" says Roland Pellegrino, one of the film's executive producers. "It did well everywhere else but in Germany, and that had to do with the reception it received in Berlin."

So, what sort of U.S. film is likely to shine in the Berlin spotlight, and which ones would be better advised to stay out of the glare?

While Berlin has the reputation of being the most serious of the Big Three festivals -- "there are no palm trees in Berlin" is how one studio executive puts it -- a well-placed piece of star-driven entertainment also can play well.

"My first Berlinale was in 1990, and back then, the crowds used to boo anything they thought was too 'commercial,'" Bachman says. "That's changed. A good, pure entertainment film can work well, as we saw with 'Hitch.' But the important thing there is glitz and glamour, which means stars. You have to have the stars."

Bachman points out that the bad press surrounding "Cold Mountain's" premiere was in part due to the fact that stars Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger were unable to attend the red-carpet gala.

For a "quality film," Berlin can provide the critical support needed to "spark the interest of the audience and the theater owners," says Jasna Vavra, head of theatrical entertainment at German distributor Universum Film. "If a film runs in Berlin, it gets attention, whatever the critics say. With (2002's) 'The Hours,' the national press was a lot more positive than Berlin's critics, but playing in Berlin raised the profile of the film."

However, the one thing everyone can agree on is that Berlin is especially unforgiving to mediocrity -- especially if it comes out of Hollywood.

"Films that fall somewhere in between -- that are neither critics films nor pure entertainment -- can have a tough time," Bachman says. "Berlin can't save a film. If the film is no good, Berlin won't make it any better."