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Berlin Film Festival Reaches Creative Crossroads as Leadership Change Looms

While the Cannes and Venice film festivals have often chased the same star-studded U.S. movies to add red-carpet glitz and early awards buzz to their events, Europe’s other top festival, the Berlinale, has traditionally followed its own path due to timing and a politically minded editorial bent.

But the upcoming departure of festival director Dieter Kosslick after 18 years at the helm, and the June 1 arrival of Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek as the new co-chiefs, will mark a turning point for the festival. The question is, in which direction.

Chatrian, currently head of the Locarno fest, and Rissenbeek, managing director of promotional organization German Film, will face competing demands as they begin planning the Berlinale’s 2020 edition. (The pair declined to comment for this story.) The German culture ministry, which chose the two for the job last June, wants the festival to skew younger and be “more international and open to experimentation” while maintaining its political focus. But dozens of German filmmakers who signed an open letter during the search process said that Kosslick’s successor should also be capable of leading the festival into the future “on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice.”

That latter goal will depend in large part on Chatrian’s relationship with Hollywood and the new global players, especially Netflix. Chatrian, who will serve as artistic director, has a reputation for being pro-streamer: At Locarno’s most recent edition, Amazon Studios film production chief Ted Hope was honored with the Best Independent Producer Award, and Netflix acquisition exec Funa Maduka sat on the First Feature jury.

But this openness to streamers is likely to put Chatrian, an outsider to the German film industry, at odds with established local players, including exhibitors. Kosslick himself is facing some heat for his first-time selection of a Netflix film, Isabel Coixet’s “Elisa and Marcela,” to compete for the Golden Bear in this year’s festival, which runs Feb. 7-17.

“There’ll be an outcry no matter what [Chatrian] does … but can you imagine if he turns down a film like ‘Roma’?” says German industry veteran Martin Moszkowicz, the CEO of Constantin Films. “Both Netflix and exhibitors will have to be more flexible. We can’t have a Taliban-like approach.” 

German-Turkish director Fatih Akin, whose new film, “The Golden Glove,” will also vie for Berlin’s top prize, says that the power of Netflix to bring art-house cinema to mass audiences, as well as the financial and creative good the streaming giant is doing for filmmakers, can’t be overlooked. “There will be a clash,” Akin says of the looming battle between the German industry and Chatrian, “but as long as there is a dialogue, he shouldn’t be afraid to clash.” Akin adds that the festival, which shows about 400 films, should focus on “quality rather than quantity.”

Netflix declined to comment.

Chatrian will benefit from being able to concentrate on curation following the festival’s decision to reorganize along the lines of Cannes and Venice, which divide artistic and business duties at the top. Kosslick has had to juggle both. The new system should make the workload more reasonable and help ensure the artistic director’s independence. 

Akin was among the signatories of the public letter insisting that Berlin match the high profile of Venice and Cannes. That means attracting celebrities. “Venice, which was considered a dead festival years ago, is now considered a glamorous one because American stars are going,” Akin says, despite admitting to mixed feelings about the glitz factor.

But luring big-name talent will continue to be a challenge for the Berlinale, even if Chatrian develops strong ties to streamers and Hollywood. The festival’s timing — in the thick of winter, and long before any talk of awards — works against it. Although the fest could get pushed to the end of February or the beginning of March next year to avoid conflicting with the Oscars, timing issues would remain.

“It will be a hugely transitional Berlin Film Festival, not only because it’s the last edition under the current leadership but also because sellers and buyers will be wondering how new platforms like Apple will impact deal-making.”
Emilie Georges, Memento Films Distribution

“The big sponsors, the cosmetics and car companies, would like to have a glamorous festival, to have more coverage in the mainstream media, but Venice and Cannes are better suited” to attract stars, Moszkowicz says.

It will fall to Rissenbeek, who as executive director will oversee the business side of the Berlinale, to keep big backers on board. Carmaker Audi’s principal sponsorship of the fest, which was originally scheduled to end this year, has been extended to next year, but beyond that it’s unclear. 

Rissenbeek might also have to search for new digs for the festival. The lease on the Berlinale Palast in Potsdamer Platz, the fest’s main theater, is up in 2022. Odds are that it will be renewed, but speculation has surfaced about other potential venues, including the historic but defunct Tempelhof Airport about 2½ miles to the south. Any move would involve disruption and cost. Rissenbeek and Chatrian, who have begun speaking with Berlinale staff to familiarize themselves with the festival’s internal workings, will soon make a site visit to Potsdamer Platz to understand more about the event’s current location.

Also key to Berlin’s status as a must-attend event is the European Film Market, which remains second in Europe only to Cannes. Attendance has risen sharply over the past five years, so much so that organizers have imposed some restrictions on access this year and hiked fees, to some likely grumbles.

“It will be a hugely transitional Berlin Film Festival, not only because it’s the last edition under the current leadership but also because sellers and buyers attending the EFM will be wondering how new OTT platforms like Apple will impact deal-making,” says Emilie Georges of Memento Films Distribution.

Sony Pictures Classics has made several important acquisitions of Berlinale movies in recent years, notably “A Separation” and “A Fantastic Woman,” both of which ended up winning the Academy Award for foreign language film. SPC’s Dylan Leiner sees the festival’s looming shake-up as a chance to double down on its influence. “The Berlinale is an essential crossroads for the international business, and its importance and relevance has only grown over the past 10 years,” he says. “Under its new leadership, it has the opportunity to become even more dynamic and indispensable.”

Many of the foreign language Oscar submissions premiere at the Berlinale, says Arianna Bocco, executive VP of acquisitions and production for IFC Films and Sundance Selects. She makes the trek to Berlin every February mainly for the market, which gives an indication of “what films will be ready [to screen] at Cannes.”

To remain an A-list event, the Berlinale will need to play to its strengths instead of trying to ape its rivals, Moszkowicz says.

“We’ll never outrun Cannes,” he argues. “It will remain the biggest and [most] prestigious festival, and trying to copy them will be like putting your finger in a chain saw. So we need to try to be different.” 

Ed Meza contributed to this report.

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