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Beyond baby talk at Berlin

Name change reflects new attitude

ROME — Since the 1970s, the Berlinale has been taking the pulse of new generations of moviegoers, its Kinderfilmfest growing steadily into a prime bazaar for viewers and buyers of films for young audiences and programmers from other kid fests.

Now, on its 30th anniversary, the Berlin kindergarten has renamed itself Generation, reflecting how youngsters in the new media age are growing up more quickly, and their tastes, intellects and philosophies are becoming more sophisticated.

“We play films for a young audience; but we don’t necessarily play children’s films or what many filmmakers think children’s films are,” says Generation topper Thomas Hailer.

“What Berlin can do is widen the outlook and the attitude of both industry professionals and audiences, and (help) take these films out of a kind of kiddie ghetto,” he adds.

Indeed, last year 1,000 children watching Danish pic “We Shall Overcome” in Berlin’s Zoo Palast collectively broke into a cheer when on the screen an old pupil-beating headmaster dropped dead.

Hailer relates this anecdote as he explains the need for the name change: “Overcome” helmer Niels Arden Oplev had nearly turned down his Kinderfilmfest invitation, fearing the section would be too confining for his 1969-set tale, in which Martin Luther King Jr. inspires the (nonviolent) 13-year-old protag to rebel.

Renaming his section Generation has also boosted submissions, says Hailer, who points to the presence of Shane Meadows’ 1980’s skinhead gangs portrayal, “This Is England” as an example of how the name change has helped open up the section.

As producers worldwide are increasingly targeting youth audiences as a key demographic, the quality of pics depicting young people’s perspectives on their lives is improving, and so is the crossover potential of those films.

In the U.S., Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” with its $60 million domestic take, is among top 2006 indie titles. “Akeelah and the Bee” and Sundance prizewinner “Quinceanera” are among other U.S. films providing a youth p.o.v. — without being hung with the often deadly “family” label — which clicked with audiences of all ages.

At Berlin’s European Film Market, the segment of kid-targeted pics has seen steady growth over the years, according to EFM topper Beki Probst, who estimates they now account for about one-third of the mart’s total trade volume.

“International careers of many so-called children’s films start here,” she says.

And Europe, despite its declining birth rate, has been making huge strides in its output of all types of films for children, adolescents and teens — DVD has given the children’s arthouse market a big boost, per Hailer:

  • In France, Luc Besson’s 3-D animation/live-action “Arthur and the Invisibles,” about a boy who descends into a miniature underworld in his Connecticut backyard, is among this year’s top Gallic grossers and has two sequels in the pipeline.

  • Michel Ocelot’s “Azur and Asmar,” set in a medieval Maghreb, and talking-unicorn pic “U” from arty Paris-based L’Atelier d’Anim studio — this last title unspooling in Generation — also stand as testimony to the vibrant state of Gaul’s animation industry and its diversified efforts to counter Hollywood studio toons.

  • Germany’s Studio Hamburg has a kiddie trilogy in the works based on U.S. author Robert Arthur’s “The Three Investigators” tomes, being touted as the Teutonic answer to “Harry Potter.”

  • Switzerland recently chose “Vitus,” about a piano prodigy’s growing pains, as its 2007 Oscar candidate. After preeming in Berlin last year, helmer Fredi M. Murer’s pic sold to more territories than any other Swiss film in the past decade; pickup includes Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S.

  • A sequel is in the works of hit Dutch tot pic “Winky’s Horse,” which unspooled in the Kinderfilmfest last year. The girl-and-pony tale had a nice theatrical ride in the Netherlands and is doing boffo biz elsewhere on homevid.

In Scandinavia, which is Europe’s model region for children’s cinema in both numerical output and thematic boldness, “Zozo,” a drama about a Lebanese orphan who makes his way from war-torn Beirut to Sweden, recently won the region’s prestigious Nordic Council Film Prize.

Just like its predecessor, Generation has separate competitions: one for tykes, Generation Kplus; and one for teens, Generation 14plus.

Besides “England,” the teen Generation will comprise South Korean entry “Like a Virgin,” in which a 16-year-old boy wants to have a sex change; Indian entry “Vanaja,” about a 14-year-old girl who is a rape victim; and Romania’s “The Way I Spent the End of the World,” depicting that country’s 1989 revolution through the eyes of a 17-year-old.

U.S. entry “Man in the Chair” by indie helmer Michael Schroeder, and toplining Christopher Plummer, is a reflection on old age in which a troubled kid gets to shoot a pic thanks to a group of old Hollywood greats living in a retirement home.

And Generation Kplus won’t just be featuring “cute” fare either. Hailer says “Dorm,” a ghost pic from Thailand, scared him nearly to death. In Swedish musical “Kidz in da Hood,” a 9-year-old illegal immigrant girl finds an unconventional foster father in a rock musician, while Israel’s “Love and Dance,” muses on the identity of its Russian immigrants.

Claudio Gubitosi, founder and topper of Italy’s Giffoni international children’s film fest, says if there’s one thing he’s learned in his venerable event’s 36-year existence, it’s that “there really is no such thing as cinema for children.

“There are just good movies that can speak to kids.”

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