Good news, bad news at Berlinale

Opinions mixed at European Film Market

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BERLIN -- It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times. The tale of the European Film Market so far depends largely on who you ask, with as many sounding upbeat about the level of business as those griping about a sluggish market that will not yield enough sales to justify the expense.

"There's reasonable traffic, but nothing spectacular," said one French seller in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, putting a positive spin on the light attendance in the main market building. "The market is slow," was the succinct verdict of another Gallic seller.

And if ever there was a reliable indicator of how busy a market is, barely half the tables were taken at lunchtime Saturday in the Grand Hyatt hotel, one of the main festival gathering points which, in previous years, would have been thronged for the event's main weekend.

"Everyone says it's really down, but we've had a very good market so far, because this is our strongest lineup yet," said Francois Yon, co-chief of Films Distribution, which has a flood of offers for what is billed as the first-ever French zombie picture "The Horde."

But in terms of major deals, the news was almost always: "It's too early, we'll know more in a couple of days."

Inevitably, the dark cloud of the global financial meltdown hangs over the EFM and is coloring everyone's mood, even those reporting solid business.

"It's there all the time, whatever you're discussing," said Jean-Christophe Simon of Berlin-based sales group Films Boutique. "We've seen some territories hit really bad -- like Russia and Brazil, which have seen their currencies drop 30% or more, which of course effects their buying power." Several companies noted many signed Russia deals were being renegotiated or canceled outright.

"It's happening with a lot of companies there, which are struggling to stay afloat," one European seller noted. "They are saying -- you can sue us if you want but don't expect any money."

With money too tight to mention, several exhibitors are questioning whether they can afford to keep coming to Berlin. The costs are substantial. An EFM suite in the Marriott will run you 7,000 euros and all extras are, well, extra: 50 euros to rent a coat stand, a jaw-dropping 500 euros for wireless Lan access.

"After the market, we'll have to do a cost-benefit analysis and see if it makes sense for us to make Berlin a permanent stop on the calendar alongside the other markets, like (TV market) MIPCOM, where you have a lot of the same buyers," said Carlos Hertel, head of international sales at TMG International.

Carnaby International head of sales Ian Hall said business hadn't been too bad after a very slow start. "We're seriously looking into not going to Cannes this year. We might go down for a couple of days but there are much better ways to spend the sort of cash Cannes costs a company."

And while financiers are few and far between at the moment, one said there was no doubt that there were fewer people here. "The EFM might be able to claim there are just as many companies here but there is no question those companies have sent fewer reps," he said.

Of course, griping about the EFM has a long, proud tradition. And while every second company exec seems to be moaning about something or other, they all keep coming back.

"Everybody is complaining and then everybody is complaining about the complainers," said Susan Wendt, head of sales at Danish giant TrustNordisk. "You know, just be quiet already."

The new space in the Marriott is seen as a move up for those who were previously located in the Potsdamer Platz tower. "It's a good location. Every day we're signing deals, and, considering the hardships, prices have been OK," said Kini Kim, vp international film financing and distribution for Seoul-based CJ Entertainment. "This has been our best EFM in the 9-10 years since we've been participating."

Hungaricom also found the move to the Marriott positive, even though it's not been as busy as they would like. "We like it better," Hungaricom sales director Viktor Dudas said. "Everyone can walk by and see the displays and it's easier to talk to people. It's not as crowded as we expected but it's still better."

But at times, walking around the market floors, things were so barren you almost expected tumbleweed to blow by to the sound of a single bell tolling. "We thought there would be more people quite frankly," said one exhibitor attending for the first time. "We're disappointed. I think it was poorly marketed. We are almost like an afterthought."

Borys Kit and Stuart Kemp contributed to this report.
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