Film fest a very early launchpad for Oscar race

Ever since the Academy Awards moved a month earlier in 2004, Hollywood has been struggling to work out how the Berlin Intl. Film Festival fits into its new calendar.

In the old days, when the nominations were announced in the middle of the fest, the Berlinale served as a perfect European launchpad for Oscar contenders, and a chance for some last-minute campaigning on the red carpet.

Now, however, the festival is stranded in the dumping ground between the nominations and the awards. All the major movies are already in general release in Europe, while the stars are staying close to home.

That leaves the field clear for U.S. indies that might really benefit from the platform Berlin provides. Indeed, now that the fest comes too late for the current Oscar race, it has emerged as a very early launchpad for the following year. In recent times, films such as “Away From Her” and “Elegy” (not to mention Euro contenders “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “La Vie en rose”) have got a headstart there.

Lakeshore’s David Dinerstein handled “Elegy.” “Berlin gave us the ability to plant a seed and nurture it and let it grow,” he says. “We wanted to get a jump in the way that ‘Away From Her’ did, to give people time to discover our film.”

In the end, “Elegy” didn’t really figure in the final laps of the Oscar race, but at least Berlin gave the movie some early momentum. Pics such as Miramax/Stephen Frears’ Michelle Pfeiffer topliner “Cheri,” Demi Moore/Parker Posey starrer “Happy Tears,” Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger” and Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” will be hoping for similar buzz from their Berlinale launches this year.

But Berlin can give some films needed international exposure: Fox Searchlight is unspooling domestic hit “Notorious,” a biopic about the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., in a noncompetition slot at Berlin; pic’s getting its international preem at the fest.

Over in the Panorama sidebar, pride of place goes to an Oscar candidate that in years gone by would surely have graced the main competition. Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” will be presented at the Zoo Palast in a gala to celebrate Panorama’s 30th anniversary.

Panorama topper Wieland Speck believes that the pic’s subject matter and its artistic pedigree make it the perfect choice to celebrate a sidebar that has spent three decades pioneering gay political cinema. He clearly couldn’t care less that “Milk” has already been released across Europe and has even screened at a couple of smaller festivals.

Speck’s decision to program the movie has created friction with Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick, who is fighting a battle to preserve the fest’s status as a place for world, or at least international, premieres. To be considered for Kosslick’s official selection, a film must not have premiered outside its country of origin. For U.S. pics, that rule is becoming harder to enforce.

Having sold the movie internationally to indie distribs, Focus could have insisted that they hold off until after Berlin. But it bowed to the wish of the local distribs, who were determined to get “Milk” out in January to benefit from the pre-Oscar buzz.

“January in the U.K. is crowded, but very profitable,” says Sam Nicholls of the film’s British distributor, Momentum Pictures. “The good news about Berlin is that local distributors do get consulted. If it doesn’t work for the local European distributors, the producers tend not to take their movies there.”

“We’ve had that argument with Dieter many times,” says one studio specialty prexy. “He’ll say, ‘I’ll give you the slot but you’ve got to promise me the talent. But the fact is, the talent don’t want to go to Berlin. It’s cold and miserable, and by then they are totally exhausted by the domestic campaigns. Unfortunately, for English-language specialized fare, Berlin is very difficult to make work.”

Nonetheless, it’s testimony to the power the festival still wields that this exec chose to speak off the record. Another studio topper explains: “Berlin is very important politically for any studio that does business in Germany on a big scale. We have to be seen to support Berlin. But it’s not that important commercially.”

Studio films such as “There Will Be Blood,” “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Good Shepherd” launched into Germany from the Berlinale but posted weak results at Teuton wickets.

Roger Pollock, Paramount Intl.’s exec VP of distribution, says: “We haven’t been to Berlin for several years with a headlining film. For us, the January-to-June window has an awful lot of product, so if you miss several weeks to wait for Berlin, we’d be squeezing even more into a smaller window.”

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