The European Film Market, which runs during the Berlin Film Festival, is one the world’s top three movie bazaars, but in concert with the festival it has become much more than just a trading post, with the addition of various sidebars that enhance the value of the event for the 9,000-plus industry attendees.

In 1988, Berlin had an industry section, known as the Film Fair, but it was a modest event, attended mainly by national film institutions, with little actual trading. The Rotterdam Film Festival, which runs before the Berlinale, and the American Film Market, which at that time ran immediately after the German event, were deemed better places to haggle over rights.

The Berlinale, under then-festival chief Moritz de Hadeln, understood that a more formal and better organized market was needed, and appointed Beki Probst to head it. Probst, who is now the EFM’s president, says: “It was important to have something for the industry because we realized that on the one hand you have the local distributors and producers, but if you want to grow you have to attract the international people. They need a place to buy and sell [films], otherwise why would they come?”

Probst set about revamping the event, starting with a name change. “I thought: You have the American Film Market on the other side of the world, but we are in Europe … we should have [a market] in Europe.”

The name has been a source of confusion for some. “It is not a market for [only] European films,” says Dieter Kosslick, who became the Berlinale’s chief in 2001. “It is an international market.”

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 led to an influx of new companies that “appeared overnight like mushrooms,” says Probst, but just as quickly vanished as the film industries in the former Soviet Bloc countries struggled to survive without state subsidy.

Meanwhile, the European Economic Community, later renamed the European Union, was starting to develop a system of support for the film industry that would boost the distribution of arthouse films in the region, and helped fuel the sales business at the EFM. One of the bodies that was central to this was the European Film Distribution Office, which was founded by Kosslick in 1988.

The number of EFM attendees grew steadily, but were still modest. In 1991, 2,000 film professionals attended. In 2017, 9,550 participated in the EFM. The one event that above all else supersized Berlin’s market activity was the AFM’s decision in 2005 to vacate its late February spot in the calendar and run only in November.

“I always say it was the Americans’ biggest gift [to Berlin],” Probst says.

“[Berlin] became the midway point between the AFM and Cannes,” Kosslick adds.

The EFM’s popularity was further boosted by Kosslick’s decision to move the market into the historic (built between 1877 and 1881) neo-Renaissance Martin Gropius Bau, its present home, in 2006. “I never liked film markets,” he says. “They were full of bad air, so you needed headache pills to get through them. So I thought the [Berlin] market must be in the best and most beautiful place and then people would sell [their films].”

Many of the films in the festival are represented by sales agents, and so are also in the market, but the two are not linked, according to Kosslick. “If you have a booth in the market it doesn’t mean it is any easier for you to get your film in one of the official sections of the Berlinale. We do not make these kinds of deals,” he says.

Nonetheless, their selection does help with sales. “It is very interesting for the market to have films coming from those sections because they come with a label. They are curated,” Probst says, although the Berlinale doesn’t draw attention to the market success of festival films. “We are elegantly discreet.”

Personal relationships are central to the EFM’s success, and have come to the fore during crises such as the economic crash of 2008. “We had empathy for people and tried to help them,” Probst says.

This remains the case under Matthijs Wouter Knol, who became EFM director in 2014. “We can find ways to work things out. We can adapt,” he says. “It is one of the strengths of the market in Berlin that there is this flexibility — the ability to do things in different ways.”

Such initiatives as Berlinale Talents, which brings 250 up-and-coming filmmakers to the festival, the Co-Production Market and Drama Series Days, which presents a selection of high-end serialized drama shows, have boosted the EFM. “The EFM is surrounded by other crucial initiatives that have strengthened it,” Knol says. “In the past four years we have tightened the bonds with these other programs. This has improved the services that the EFM can offer visitors.”

The market last year hosted 730 films, including 600 market premieres, but Knol says it values quality over quantity. “Demand is very high and the interest in doing business in Berlin is increasing. But we are not saying we want to be the world’s biggest film market,” he says. “It is also about the quality of the companies that we have here and the quality of the content. It is our aim to have a high-quality market that is known for excellent service, discretion, high-quality content and good links with the festival.”

Industry players heading for the European Film Market see it as a must-attend event, and being in a lively, bohemian city such as Berlin is an added bonus.

Mister Smith’s CEO David Garrett says the European Film Market plays “a very important role” in the movie business, as one of the top three markets, alongside Cannes and the American Film Market.

He says it is “a question of timing” as to which event hosts the launch of a project, as it depends when the project is ready to go, but, he adds, “I’ve always really, really liked Berlin. It’s well-organized, well-focused.” The screening facilities, he says, are “fantastic, probably better than Cannes, in terms of the quality of the cinemas.”

He adds: “Berlin has had its detractors, but even its detractors still go every year because I think they can’t live without it.”

Most of the buyers Garrett needs to see are in Berlin, although a lot of the Asian buyers don’t go, which may be because it sometimes coincides with the Chinese New Year.

Arclight Films chairman Gary Hamilton says: “Berlin is a very good market and is well-positioned in terms of being at the start of the year.” The AFM, on the other hand, is at a disadvantage being in November. “We are always pleasantly surprised by Berlin. We probably have higher expectations of Cannes, and sometimes it does OK, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

He adds: “Toronto is giving everyone a run for their money because people are launching packages there, too.”

Smaller European arthouse buyers, and in particular those from Eastern Europe, tend not to travel to AFM, but will be in Berlin. Celluloid Dreams VP Charlotte Mickie says alongside Cannes, Berlin is the leading market for theatrical films that are review-driven.

“Distributors perceive Berlin as a place to go to discover exciting films and talent,” says Alison Thompson, co-president at Cornerstone. “I feel international cinema is truly celebrated [there], both in the market and the festival.”

Martin Moszkowicz, CEO of Constantin Film, one of Germany’s leading production and distribution companies, says Berlin is a “must-go” event for local companies, being a gathering point for the country’s film biz players, as well as providing the chance to meet leading international distributors, producers and filmmakers. But, he says, “There are too many markets for feature films, and possibly TV. There’s no real need for it.” He says that there was not “an abundance of product” at AFM, and Cannes is coming up, which is “the most important market.”

He adds: “Berlin is good to have but it’s not a necessity. We have bought movies there but I wouldn’t say we wouldn’t have bought them [if we hadn’t been there].”
Many EFM regulars speak of their fondness for Berlin as a city. “There’s something very moving about Berlin,” Mickie says. “You feel the weight of 20th century history around you. It’s such an elegant place.”