Zurich Film Festival Draws Top Talent in Crowded Fall Field

Over the past decade, the Zurich Film Festival has established a major presence in the crowded fest circuit — thanks to A-list guests, exclusive film finance meets and privileged access to the German-speaking market.

Leading talent at this year’s edition, which runs Sept. 25-Oct. 2, includes Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Benicio del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Diane Keaton and Antonio Banderas, and helmers Susanne Bier, Marc Forster and Frederick Wiseman.

Zurich positions itself as the main film festival in the fall for the lucrative German-speaking market of 100 million — dovetailing with Berlin in February and Munich in June.

“We attract major media presence at Zurich, especially from German media,” says artistic director Karl Spoerri. “That makes Zurich an excellent film platform.”

For its 10th anniversary, the fest boasts a strong competitive lineup and a high-profile 30-film Gala Premieres section, which includes “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” starring Liam Neeson; Israel Horovitz’s comedy “My Old Lady”; David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn”; and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Venice opener “Birdman.”

Since 2005, the fest has progressively increased its screenings, funding and audience levels, rising from an initial 8,000 admissions to 71,000 in 2013.

Savvy partnerships and private sponsorship deals — negotiated by Spoerri and managing director Nadja Schildknecht — have powered the fest’s growth.

This year it has a record $7.5 million budget, 15% higher than 2013, and 95% sourced from private sponsors.

The 2014 edition features 145 films from 29 countries, including 11 debut films, 17 world premieres, 12 international premieres and 47 premieres for the German-speaking territory.

The three competitive categories — International Feature, International Documentary and Focus (Switzerland, Germany and Austria) — offer cash prizes between $21,600 and $27,000.

International titles include Craig Johnson’s drama “The Skeleton Twins,” Adrian Biniez’s soccer-themed “El Cinco” and Baldvin Z’s Iceland hit, “Life in a Fishbowl.”

German titles include Bettina Blumner’s documentary “Parcours d’Amour” and Baran bo Odar’s hacker-thriller “Who am I?”

Zurich has also launched ZFF TVision, showcasing innovative TV productions, including Mark Forster’s vigilante thriller “Hand of God” and Sean Durkin’s lone-gunman drama “Southcliffe.”

“The landscape has completely changed,” says Spoerri. “Ten years ago TV titles would never have screened at top fests but now there’s so much interesting talent working in TV.”

Other fest sidebars include Border Lines, ZFF for Kids, the third film music competition and New World View — this year focusing on emerging Indian cinema, including Amit Kumar’s noir thriller “Monsoon Shootout” and Nishtha Jain’s caste oppression documentary “Gulabi Gang.”

In 2013, Zurich expanded its geographical footprint, inking a partnership with the San Sebastian film festival, enabling the fests to share movies and expenses. For example, Andrea di Stefano’s “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” starring del Toro, screens at both fests in 2014, with talent attending.

Zurich also positions itself as a major film industry hub. Since 2010 it has hosted Winston Baker’s Film Finance Forum, with past speakers including Harvey Weinstein, Martin Moszkowicz and Pierre-Ange Le Pogam.

This year, the event has been renamed the Zurich Summit and is now invitation-only.

“We’re gaining a more high-profile audience this year, with people coming from all over the world,” Spoerri says. “It’s not just about film financing. It’s also about videogames, TV and new digital opportunities.”

Other fest highlights include lifetime achievement awards for actress Diane Keaton, producer Michael Shamberg and composer Hans Zimmer, plus master classes with helmers Frederick Wiseman, Susanne Bier and Fatih Akin.

“Our key goal is to grow organically,” Schildknecht says. “We’ve built up a loyal audience. The 10th edition will allow us to attain new milestones.”

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