UPDATE: The European Film Market, which runs alongside the Berlin Film Festival, will be held online for the second consecutive year due to the pandemic. The festival, meanwhile, hopes to be maintained as an in-person event, Variety can reveal.
Organizers have confirmed that the EFM has changed gears following a rise in COVID-19 cases in Germany. The festival is still being planned as an in-person event in February, although a final decision will only come early next week after discussions with various levels of federal and state government. A spokesperson has ruled out the possibility of a summer event (like last year’s largely domestic June gathering) or a virtual festival, meaning organizers are being extremely bullish about some kind of February edition going forward.
The EFM is the world’s second biggest film market following Cannes’ Marché du Film. The event said mid-December that it was on track for a largely in-person edition, with exhibition space in its main venues, the Gropius Bau and Marriott Hotel, almost fully booked up. However, in recent weeks, Berlin has been grappling with rising COVID-19 cases in Germany.
The Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases reported 56,335 new laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday, as well as 264 deaths associated with the virus. Around 71.6% of the population have received both vaccines, but just 41.6% have received the booster. (The government has set an 80% target for double-dose vaccinations, and aims to administer 30 million booster shots by the end of January.)
At a major government briefing on Friday afternoon, it’s believed that new restrictions on social distancing are being mooted, as well as allowing access to restaurants only with proof of a booster or negative COVID test. Shorter quarantine periods are also being considered.
All eyes have been on Berlin since Wednesday’s cancellation of Sundance’s in-person edition, which dealt a heavy blow to morale across the film industry. With just two weeks to go, organizers pulled the plug on the Park City confab, opting to go fully virtual for a second year running due to the COVID-19 situation in the U.S.
“Despite the most ambitious protocols, the Omicron variant with its unexpectedly high transmissibility rates is pushing the limits of health safety, travel and other infrastructures across the country,” Sundance organizers said in a statement, noting that they were “disappointed to not provide the full hybrid experience and gather in-person as intended.”
Berlin went virtual last February, but also held a smaller in-person event in June, which was largely attended by the German industry.
The festival’s organizers have been closely monitoring the COVID situation since December, when Germany first began imposing restrictions to fight the wave of Omicron, which is causing 25% of all new COVID cases in the country, and is expected to become the dominant variant in a few days’ time.
Although it’s believed the festival was exploring a June contingency plan, Berlinale executive director Mariette Rissenbeek and artistic director Carlo Chatrian assured Variety in late-December that plans were underway for a physical event in February with movie theaters at full capacity and the same number of films as in pre-pandemic times. It’s unclear now whether those same conditions will continue to apply to the fest.
While Omicron has thrown a curveball, Variety understands that the City of Berlin and the government supports the festival going ahead as an in-person undertaking, especially as the so-called “2G” rules are in place, meaning that only vaccinated or those who have recently recovered from COVID are allowed entry into restaurants, museums and certain events.
Organizers are currently planning an extremely strict protocol for the festival, according to an industry insider. One option being explored is requiring participants to show proof of double vaccination plus booster, or — if one isn’t yet boosted — a double vaccination plus negative PCR result. On top of that, there are also discussions about drastically reducing audience capacity in venues, including in theaters.