Berlin Festival Braced for Coronavirus, But Greater Headaches Afoot for Chinese Industry

A couple wearing face masks walk
Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Shutterstock

The Berlin Festival has taken a hit from the coronavirus epidemic that began in China, but the absence of Chinese buyers may signal wider industry problems.

Festival organizers, who do not anticipate further virus-related damage, told Variety that 118 individuals set to attend from China have cancelled, out of approximately 21,000 accreditations. From other territories (Sweden, Malaysia, Japan, Switzerland, Taiwan, Uzbekistan), 17 people have cancelled their attendance and given the coronavirus as a reason to cancel.

“It is hard to distinguish whether they were coming for the market or festival because of overlap. For the time being, the situation in Germany is not dangerous at all,” said a festival spokesman.

Globally, the coronavirus has infected over 75,000 people and killed 2,009, according to data Wednesday, with all but five deaths in mainland China. There has been only one fatality in Europe — a Chinese tourist.

The most visible impact on the Berlinale has been the cancelation of a China Pavilion planned within the European Film Market for the first time, in the former buyers lounge at the south entrance of the Gropius-Bau. “EFM regrets the fact this first-time Chinese umbrella stand will not be realised, but understands the circumstances of the cancelation are based on a force majeure situation,” an EFM spokesman told Variety.

A delegation of film executives from companies including Wanda Pictures, Alibaba Pictures, Youku, Times Vision, New Classics Media, and Enlight Pictures, organized by state-owned China Film Co-Production Corporation (CFCC) was also called off.

Industry association Bridging the Dragon said it had cancelled the inaugural edition of a pitching event. “We’ll reshuffle the program and analyze the impact of the pandemic and what to expect next season,” said BTD’s Doris Ho. The association will still proceed next week with its annual one-day seminar in Berlin.

The festival says it is well-prepared for an influx of visitors. Its website reveals it has been in close contact with the Robert Koch Institute and the Berlin health authorities. Posters offering personal hygiene tips and health warnings are being placed around festival venues and screening rooms.

“The Berlin Institute for Virology and the special isolation unit at the Charite hospital are available to handle any cases,” said organizers.

Air travel in Asia has been severely hit by the virus, and flights have been cancelled as a result of a combination of plunging demand and quarantine restrictions. The German Embassy in Beijing was also temporarily closed, making it difficult for some would-be festival attendees to obtain visas in time.

Lemon Tree Media’s Yelina K said the business cancelled its Berlinale trip at the last minute due to the epidemic. “We’re literally housebound,” she complained.

“We’ll follow the market from afar. However, when buying, it’d be much easier if we could have face-to-face meetings with sales agents and a first-hand view of the promos in order to make a decision.”

China’s international sales sector is still very small, with many of the most prominent art house titles represented by Hong Kong or European companies. These have enjoyed greater flexibility.

“Even with the current situation in China and Asia, Asian cinema still needs to be defended and promoted, so it was our responsibility to be in Berlin for our films, their directors and producers,” said Isabelle Glachant, head of sales agent Asian Shadows.

“Because we’re a European-Asian team makes it easier for us to spend more time in Europe, while still having our Asian office working.”

However, the greatest damper on Chinese attendance at Berlin this year is more likely the weakening condition of the film industry and the underlying economy. Imports of foreign and independent films have also been trending down regardless of the virus. Recent figures from the Independent Film & Television Alliance show that only 13 U.S. independent films were released in China in 2019.

“There are not as many films from China this year in the festival, because many films weren’t ready in time,” said a festival spokesman. That reflects the significant turmoil in the production sector over the last 18 months brought on by changes to the tax regime affecting the industry, as well as new censorship rules.

The virus outbreak is exacerbating the financial outlook for the film industry in China. “Coronavirus affects the economy a lot at the moment, with all the cinemas closed. Unless the situation gets better, I assume nobody will be buying for Q1 and Q2,” said Ruby Li of distributor Phoenix Entertainment.

Cindy Lin of distributor Infotainment opined that it will take at least a year to recover from the virus. “The film industry is just a small part. Cinema closures and the fact that we don’t know when the epidemic will be controlled all contribute to uncertainty.”