Standing Tall

Under Beki Probst, Berlin's EFM has gone from an informal film club to one of the top three markets in the world

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There will come a point in this European Film Market, as there does every year, when you feel like complaining. Complaining about the screening fees, complaining about the long slog to the CineStar, complaining about Beki Probst and her team.

This year, when that point comes, think of this: If it weren't for Probst, you be riding to the Berlinale Palast -- in the dead of a German winter -- in a rickshaw.

"I remember back in 2005 when we were planning to move (the market location) to the Martin-Gropius-Bau and there was the suggestion, 'Oh it would be so great to have rickshaws going back and forth between the market and Potsdamer Platz,' " Probst recalls. "And it was June and they wanted to show (Berlinale festival director) Dieter Kosslick and me how easy it was to go with a rickshaw. Well, thank God it was a freezing June day because I said no. It's June and we're freezing. We can't do this in February. Shuttles, I said. It has to be shuttles. And that was our lifesaver."

A shuttle service hardly qualifies as a radical idea. But running a film market is a lot like producing a film -- it's all about the details. And in her 20 years directing the EFM, Probst has got the details right.

When she took over back in 1989, the European Film Market hardly deserved the name. In fact, it didn't have the name. It was called Filmmesse and was more a club for European film chums than a place to do business. Under Probst's leadership, the EFM (a name she coined) has established itself in the top three -- alongside the American Film Market and Cannes -- as a must attend on every executive's calendar.

"For film markets in Europe, there are two that have taken center stage: Cannes and Berlin," says Fulvio Lucisano, founder and president of Italian International Films. "And Berlin has taken that role thanks to the hard work of Beki Probst and her staff."

Hengameh Panahi of Celluloid Dreams adds that Probst's unique mix of "true passion" and "an insider's view" is what has kept Probst "on the top of her game" and allowed the EFM to grow exponentially without losing its charm and personalized touch.

"She has a real overview and deep understanding of our complex business and,

crucially for us, she has a real link with what happens when the festival is over," Panahi says. "On top of all this she still manages to look fabulous and take time out to speak personally to everyone. I couldn't imagine the Berlinale without her."

While the EFM has gone through incremental changes in its two decades under Probst -- moving to the Debis on Potsdamer Platz in 2000, introducing specialized sections such as "Straight From Sundance" or this year's "Meet the Docs" -- the seismic shift came three years ago.

Italy's MIFED had shut down, the AFM had moved to from February -- where it was in direct competition with Berlin -- to November. The EFM was suddenly the only major market before Cannes. Everyone wanted -- no, needed -- to come to Berlin. To accommodate the expansion, Probst shifted the EFM from the Debis to the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

It could have been a disaster. Instead, it was a triumph. The EFM sold out and has continued to do so -- even post-credit crunch attendee numbers in Berlin have stayed stable.

Part of that success has been luck -- Berlin had little to do with the fall of MIFED or the AFM's shift to November. But it has also had a lot to do with the EFM's diminutive director. By linking the market closely to the

Berlinale, Probst has created a unique selling point for independents worldwide. Sales companies with titles in the festival's sidebars find themselves with a unique promotional platform.

"Just look at the films running in (Berlinale sidebars) Panorama, Forum and Generation," says Kosslick. "These films are also sold, and sold more successfully, in the EFM. That has to do with Beki's efforts."

"Among all the film festivals around the world trying to set up the industry event of their own, I am sure that the EFM in Berlin is one of the few successful examples," adds Youngjoo Suh, CEO of Korean sales outfit Finecut. "I have been attending Berlinale since 1998 and had hoped from the beginning for a marketplace as it is now -- within the framework of the festival."

After two decades of success, Probst and the EFM may be facing one of their biggest challenges with this year's market. The global credit crunch has placed, as Probst puts it, "a big question mark" in front of the entire international film business.

But if anyone can come through the current chaos unscathed, trust it to be Probst. In 20 years of dramatic change, through the industry's ups and downs, she has maintained her trademark poise, style and competence.

As Simon de Santiago of Spain's MOD Producciones puts it: "it's rare to meet someone as strong-willed and passionate as Beki Probst." That combination will serve her well as Probst begins her third decade at the European Film Market.