LONDON – Danish helmer Bille August’s big-budget, English-language drama “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” is set to open the 47th Berlin Intl. Film Festival (Feb. 13-24), sources say. A complex existential thriller shot in Denmark and Greenland and toplining Julia Ormond, Richard Harris and Gabriel Byrne, the pic is produced by Constantin Films’ Bernd Eichinger, with whom August previously made “House of the Spirits.”

With two months to go, about one-third of the competition’s 24 titles are firmed, including Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient,” Milos Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and no fewer than four Chinese-language pics. Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” look likely for out-of-competition slots, and a competition invite is out for Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” contingent on the helmer’s attendance.

Forman, stars Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love and the real Larry Flynt will attend “Flynt,” and Burton will be on hand for “Mars.” Branagh’s “Hamlet” would be the second 70 mm picture in the festival, alongside the announced special screening of the restored “Vertigo,” part of a 13-title Kim Novak retro.

Asian platform

The Chinese batch reflects Berlin’s stance since the late ’80s as a major platform for Asian fare. With Zhang Yimou’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and Zhang Yuan’s controversial gay drama “East Palace, West Palace” (aka “Behind the Forbidden City”) locked into various sections of Cannes, Berlin competition boss Moritz de Hadeln has managed to sweep up most other available hot Sino titles.

The four are “The River” by Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang (“Vive L’Amour”), highly touted black comedy “Surveillance” by mainlander Huang Jianxin, and two Hong Kong pictures – Yim Ho’s “Kitchen,” a second pic version of Banana Yoshimoto’s cult novel; and “Viva Erotica” by Derek Yee Tung-shing, starring Leslie Cheung as a movie director.

With Cannes moving fast this year to buttonhole major pics for its 50th go-round in May, Berlin’s selectors are under more pressure than ever to come up with a tony event. Miramax’s “Sarajevo,” Brit director Michael Winterbottom’s drama about a war journalist played by Woody Harrelson, currently is mulling invites from both fests. Winterbottom’s “Jude” played in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight this year and his previous feature, “Butterfly Kiss,” competed at Berlin in ’95. A final decision is expected by early January.

Keeping secrets

De Hadeln, who’s already done his U.S. and Far East swings, recently was in London viewing British fare with Panorama topper Wieland Speck. Both remained tightlipped about the competition lineup. De Hadeln is visiting Italy and Spain this month, followed by Paris in early January, to plug his remaining competition gaps.

Already a lock in Berlin’s Panorama section are John Hurt starrer “Love and Death on Long Island,” a “Death in Venice”-like first feature from Brit Richard Kyietnowski; Ann Hui’s “Stunt Woman,” set in the Hong Kong action industry, with superstar Michelle Yeoh; Peter Chan’s “Comrades: Almost a Love Story,” with Maggie Cheung (who joins Jack Lang on the competition jury); Sogo Ishii’s “Labyrinth of Dreams”; Les Blair’s South African-set drama “Jump the Gun”; plus Park Chul-soo’s “Farewell My Darling,” a black comedy about South Korean funeral procedures, and Isaac Julien’s feature docu “Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask,” both also in Sundance.

U.S. indie lineup

U.S. indies so far confirmed in Panorama include Lawrence Johnston’s “Life,” a prison-set AIDS drama based on a legit original; Seth Michael Donsky’s “Twisted,” about a pre-teen black boy in a gay brothel; and Sundance lesbian items “All Over Me,” by Alex Sichel, and “Hide and Seek,” by Su Friedrich. Selectors have so far plowed through only about two-thirds of the U.S. indies submitted.

The festival’s other major section, the Intl. Forum of Young Cinema, so far has confirmed 50% of its main program. Preems include Im Kwon-taek’s “Festival” (South Korea); Patrick Keiller’s “Robinson in Space” (U.K.); Jean Rouch’s “Moi Fatigue Debout, Moi Couche” (France); Ulrike Ottinger’s 300-minute “Exil Shanghai” (Germany); Yolande Zauberman’s “Clubbing to Death” (France); and Shinobu Yaguchi’s “My Secret Cache” (Japan). There’s also a six-pic New Brazilian Cinema focus.

Relocation in offing

Sources say the space-pressed Berlinale’s move into its new quarters in Potsdamer Platz, east of its current downtown location, may not take place until 2000. The area is still a massive building site and, according to one insider, “We need to be sure that everything – facilities, enough hotels, etc. – is ready before we move. We don’t want the festival to be split between two locations.”

The Berlinale has been hit this year by further snips to its budget by the federal government and city of Berlin, the latter still on its knees from the costs of reunification. In a world first that’s already set journalists’ teeth on edge, all press at the February event will be charged 50 marks ($32) just to get their plastic pass.

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