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A star on the rise

Majors tap Teutonic event for mid-winter promo push

Sony Pictures will spend millions of euros advertising its Will Smith romantic comedy, “Hitch,” from Paris to Prague. But the best European publicity for “Hitch” is likely to come Feb. 18 when Smith appears at a gala screening at the Berlin Film Festival.

“Hitch,” which opens wide in Germany on March 3, is the biggest studio tentpole in the Berlinale, but it’s not the first to exploit the promotional resources of a festival unfolding beneath the skyline of a city that’s been at the epicenter of European culture since the birth of cinema.

Last year, Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton came to the Berlinale with “Something’s Gotta Give,” a film released in the U.S. by Sony and overseas by Warners.

“We had great reviews coming out of the festival,” says Warners international marketing chief Sue Kroll. The Berlinale, Kroll says, “is a great opportunity to get a press campaign going and introduce a film to journalists.”

As the window between U.S. and overseas distribution campaigns narrows, and global marketing costs grow, festivals such as Berlin, Cannes and Venice have become irresistible publicity showcases for U.S. distribs. This year, the Berlinale will feature such Hollywood fare as “Kinsey,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and “Inside Deep Throat.”

The Berlinale is well suited to a broad-based comedy like “Hitch,” says Mark Zucker, senior exec VP of distribution for Sony Pictures Releasing Intl. “It’s both a prestigious festival and an opportunity to reach a lot of journalists.”

Although when it comes to glitz, Berlin still can’t compete with Cannes, which falls in the first weeks of the summer blockbuster season.

Cannes has staged official screenings for commercial films like “Troy,” “Shrek,” “Shrek 2,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Star Wars — Attack of the Clones” and even “Godzilla” and “Blues Brothers 2000.” Still others — “Terminator 3,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Shark Tale” and “Phantom of the Opera” — have glommed onto the fest, using the Croisette as a promotional backdrop.

Berlin, which is either cold and rainy or cold and snowbound in February, has yet to elicit the same enthusiasm from Hollywood stars and marketing execs.

“Cannes is a unique festival, from the food to the weather, the locale and the prestige,” says Patrick Wachsberger, CEO/prexy of Summit Entertainment, the sales company behind “Inside Deep Throat.”

But this cosmopolitan city, has other attractions — including voracious media coverage from European outlets. For U.S. distribs with films hitting European theaters in February and March, the festival has become a lynchpin of international marketing.

Fox is keying its international campaign for “Kinsey” to the festival, flying Liam Neeson to Berlin for a closing night screening on Feb. 20. Fox will open the film in the first few days of March in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the U.K.

“For this type of film, Berlin is a very good showcase,” says Christian Grass, Fox Intl. exec VP for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Berlin, which has emerged to become a cultural hub for young artists, writers and filmmakers, is an especially suitable backdrop for culturally adventurous films like “Kinsey” that depend on good reviews and word of mouth.

“These films require more careful handling,” Grass says. The festival, he says, offers great marketing and publicity angles. “Sex is still a good sell. In Berlin we can prove that the questions Kinsey asked at the time are still relevant.”

The German distributor of “Inside Deep Throat” is planning a latenight screening, party and press junket, hoping to capitalize on the hoopla generated by the U.S. release on Feb. 11.

“This is a great way to launch the movie,” says Wachsberger. With the AFM shifting out of February, the film market in Berlin is expected to pick up steam, making it a more attractive place for independent distribs to close deals and schmooze.

Some of this winter’s most prestigious U.S. films will miss the festival, thanks in part to the shortened Oscar season, which has kept U.S. talent busy Stateside in February. The stars and filmmakers behind “The Aviator” and “Sideways,” for instance, have already done their European junkets and in mid-February are likely to be focused on promoting their films to members of the Academy.

But that’s provided a window of opportunity for films from other countries, such as “The Hidden Blade,” a samurai drama from Yoji Yamada, who directed “Twilight Samurai,” Japan’s 2004 foreign-language Oscar entry. That film’s Japanese distributor Shochiku is being honored with this year’s Berlinale Camera award (the first company to receive the award).

Does all this mean the Berlinale can make good on what fest topper Dieter Kosslick calls its “historic opportunity” to rival Cannes as the world’s top film event?

“Berlin is certainly becoming more important,” Wachsberger says. With most films, he says, “your dream is to go to Cannes. But Cannes is always a longshot.”

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