Berlinale 2021: Could New Dates Affect the Festival Circuit?

Berlin Film Festival
Courtesy of Richard Hubner/Berlinale

As Germany continues to grapple with a new wave of COVID-19 infections, a decision about next year’s Berlin Film Festival and its sister event, the European Film Market, is understood to be imminent, with organizers strongly considering pushing the event, which is supposed to unspool Feb. 11-21, into the spring.

It’s believed the last week of March or early April are among the options on the table. Organizers are expected to confirm their plans Thursday or Friday.

Pushing back the festival would be welcomed by many in the industry. Thorsten Ritter, executive VP of acquisitions, sales and marketing at sales agency Beta Cinema, says: “Sadly, we are all rather pessimistic about a physical event in February in light of the recent developments. However, it would be great if the Berlinale could be moved and happen within the first half of the year instead of being canceled completely.

“I cannot envisage a purely digital festival without a physical component. Maybe the EFM could compensate with a digital edition and provide at least a focus point for the industry,” adds Ritter.

Moritz Hemminger, deputy head of sales and acquisitions at sales agency ARRI Media, says: “If a postponement of two months will lead to a physical and not virtual Berlinale and EFM, we are up for the wait.” For ARRI’s movies, and especially its newest dramas, a physical Berlinale/EFM is key to start the year and generate buzz and awareness for the films, “which will, in the end, trigger better sales than a digital Berlinale/EFM,” adds Hemminger.

However, Hemminger doesn’t believe a Berlinale in April will have a major impact on the festival circuit, which would in this case move closer to Cannes. “Producers were holding back movies over the last months for the return of physical festival editions. There are many exciting films lined up and ready to be showcased at major festivals next year,” says the executive.

Some are also bracing for a scenario in which Cannes is pushed back. Festival chief Thierry Fremaux said in October that the festival had locked some contingency dates in late June or early July, but no decision will be taken before January.

Another sales agent, speaking anonymously, tells Variety: “We would actually prefer Berlinale and EFM to move to a later date as we assume and hear that Cannes may also move their dates to summer. The [necessity] for us is that both key festivals and markets happen physically and late spring feels like a fairly realistic option, given the current state.” Some buyers may also have more budget for 2021, which makes the prospect of two physical events more appealing.

Of course, even April isn’t late enough in the year for some in the industry. Martin Moszkowicz, CEO of Constantin Film, producer of “Resident Evil” and “Shadowhunters,” says April is “too close” for a festival. “Everybody will still be coping with the fallout from a very difficult winter season. The business will need a couple of months to breathe again — and a lot of fresh air.”

Meanwhile, the option for Berlin to go the virtual route has been ruled out, according to some insiders. “Culturally speaking, it’s impossible for the Berlinale or any other major festival in Europe boasting competitive sections to go entirely virtual,” says Jean-Christophe Simon, the boss of Berlin-based sales company Films Boutique, who won this year’s Golden Bear Award in Berlin with “There Is No Evil.”

“It’s more viable for a festival like Berlin to push the edition than to switch to virtual because in Europe, the rendez-vous between films and their audiences is at the core of the festival experience and it has to happen on a big screen,” says Simon. “And especially Berlin because it’s mostly about the audience.”

That’s not to say, however, that there wouldn’t be some virtual component that can keep the festival accessible.

Ultimately, even if Cannes sticks to its May slot, “having Berlin in April could still work because [Berlin and Cannes] will have a strong virtual component, so people will be able to attend if they have movies in the festival, and if not, they will do some business remotely,” says one industry insider.

“Unless there is a vaccine widely available, not many people will plan to do both Berlin and Cannes anyway, even if they are organized four months apart,” adds the insider.

Berlin has been steadily growing its focus on high-end TV in its market and festival program, so it may be unwise to go up against TV drama festival Canneseries, confirmed for April 9-14, and its sister event in Cannes, TV market and conference MipTV, which is currently planned for April 12-14.

One spokesperson for a leading sales agent that deals in TV series notes: “The question of whether buyers and sales execs [working in TV] go to Cannes or Berlin will most likely be answered in MipTV and Canneseries’ favor.”

She adds: “Canneseries gained a lot of respect for getting its festival done as an on-location event in October. If travel is possible and MipTV/Canneseries has some kind of a physical presence, European TV execs might prefer the Côte d’Azur, because the event is more focused on business and deal-making. However, both events will lack non-European attendees.”