Why Tallinn Black Nights Is a Fairy-Tale Festival With a Start-Up Vibe

Tallinn Estonia H 2015
Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Tallinn Estonia H 2015

Yes, it’s cold, but the fest on the scenic northern coast of Estonia has plenty to offer — including a peek at the future of Europe’s digital single market.

Nicely sandwiched between the hard-nosed deal-making of the American Film Market in early November and the crazed activity of Berlin in February, Estonia’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (Nov. 13-29) offers a quiet respite for filmmakers and film executives looking to reboot and recharge.

The festival itself offers an impressive end-of-year roundup featuring a best-of selection ?of the top titles from Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto, along with an ample supply of world premieres from overlooked territories ?— particularly Northern and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Last year Tallinn received "A" festival status from the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, putting the event on the same tier as premium fests such as Venice and Cannes.

The lineup for the 2015 edition of Black Nights includes Dutch Oscar contender The Paradise Suite from director Joost van Ginkel, which premiered in Toronto; Lee Joon-ik’s Korean box-office blockbuster The Throne (also the country’s official foreign-language Oscar submission); Justin Lerner’s SXSW hit The Automatic Hate; and Mamoru Hosoda’s Japanese anime The Boy and the Beast, which will close Tallinn on Nov. 30.

This year’s festival also sees the inaugural Tridens First Features competition, which will highlight 14 directorial debuts. Among the most talked-about premieres are Two, helmed by Iranian actress Soheila Golestani; Colombian feature Delivery, from Martin Mejia Rugeles; and Pawno, the Melbourne-set debut of Australian director Paul Ireland.

For sales execs in the know, the festival has become a key part of the industry calendar, a place to hook up with buyers who didn’t make it to AFM and to set up the deals that will eventually be signed in Berlin.

While the festival attracts films and sales agents from around the world, its particular industry focus is Northern Europe and the CIS territories, regions with major upside potential that have proven tough for indies to crack. "Speaking with sales agents and distributors, I know that CIS and Northern European countries are becoming challenging for distribution," says Tallinn festival director and program manager Tiina Lokk-Tramberg. "Tallinn is the place where you can come to find new partners and find out how to deal with these fast-changing territories."

But Tallinn’s killer app is its industry section, Industry@Tallinn, which, uniquely, brings together creative and industry talent with high-tech companies and venture capitalists. The addition of tech and VC gives Tallinn an edge in a film industry where digital disruption of traditional business models has become the rule.

"Tech is in our DNA; it’s where we come from," says Sten-Kristian Saluveer, head of ?the Tallinn festival’s industry office, noting the city’s reputation as a European start-up hotspot. Famously, the tech team behind Skype was (and still is) based in Estonia, and the tiny country (population: 1.3 million) has more start-ups per capita than anywhere else on the continent. Many of those new tech hopefuls will be center stage in Tallinn as part of the festival’s Digitech Corner, in which members of the local tech, gaming and venture capital community present their products and business models and explain how they can fit in with the traditional film business.

But the highlight of this year’s Industry@Tallinn session, which runs Nov. 18-19, is the fireside chat with Andrus Ansip, a member of the European Commission and the man at the center of the push to erase the barriers between European territories and create a digital single market across the EU. Opponents of the so-called DSM see it as a mortal threat to copyright protection that will undermine the financial basis of the independent film industry. Supporters see opportunity in creating a unified market of more than 500 million people, potential customers for new digital cinema, VOD and streaming services.

Tallinn, says Saluveer, isn’t taking sides in the debate. "We are completely neutral; we just want to establish a dialogue," he says. "I think there’s been a lot of noise and a lot of misunderstanding about the digital single market. Our goal is to help the filmmaking community, governments, tech companies and venture capitalists come together to find common solutions."

The big question, he insists, is why Europe is lagging behind the U.S. in the tech race. "Why isn’t there a pan-European Amazon or Netflix or Google? That’s the question. We have the technological know-how in Europe, we have the creative talent, but I think Europe needs a reboot, both on the political and industry side."

Tallinn is hoping this year’s festival, with its combination of Old Europe fairy-tale setting and New Europe tech savvy, will provide just the sort of reboot Europe’s film industry so desperately needs.