Who’s Going to Berlin? International Industry Weighs Up Pros and Cons of In-Person Festival

With virtual festival fatigue sinking in, industry players are finding a way to get to Germany.

Martin Gropius Bau/EFM
Courtesy Berlinale

Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau building won’t be hopping with the European Film Market’s frenzied deal-making, but the global film industry is still weighing up trips to Germany for an in-person Berlinale.

Sales companies with a film at the festival, which runs Feb. 10-16, are largely planning to show up, and numerous distributors are expected to attend. Efforts are also underway to get buyers to Berlin by setting up separate market screenings for films in the official selection, although it’s unclear how feasible this will be.

Europa International, the umbrella group representing European sales companies, has been in negotiations with the EFM to try and arrange some sort of informal, on-the-ground market activity, according to several sources.

“We are in a constant dialogue with the sales agents and understand the need a top festival on the scale of the Berlinale generates for the commercial launch of films,” EFM director Dennis Ruh tells Variety. “We are currently exploring the safe offers we can make for sales agents with films in the Berlinale line-up in accordance with the strict protocol of the festival in its revised concept.”

As far as a U.S. presence goes, senior CAA and Neon executives are expected to attend for at least part of the festival, but companies such as IFC Films, Bleecker Street and Participant Media are sitting out an in-person Berlin, preferring to take the virtual route. FilmNation and Sony Pictures Classics are still believed to be deliberating its on-the-ground presence.

“It’s going to be a very Euro-centric event,” says one major U.S. buyer who preferred to speak anonymously. “For the most part, [sellers] will do their presentations online, so it would be a little weird to be on Zoom from a hotel room in Berlin.”

That’s not to say, of course, that virtual market fatigue hasn’t set in for the Americans. “Virtual schmirtual. Make it stop,” joked one big player, likely speaking for a healthy portion of the industry. “I can’t take another virtual festival.”

Out of the U.K., Mubi’s co-head of acquisitions Kevin Chan says the arthouse streamer, which went on a buying spree in Cannes, has travel and hotels booked but “will wait for the full selection and see how the situation develops over the next few weeks.”

London-based sales agents like Altitude, Film Constellation and Embankment Films, which don’t have movies in the program, are staying home, but Rocket Science will have a presence on the ground, with boss Thorsten Schumacher — who brought his whole team to Cannes — also planning to attend.

Susan Wendt, managing director of TrustNordisk, will bring a smaller team to the Berlinale, where the company will have at least one film in the official selection.

“I was sad and even furious when I got the news that Sundance and then the EFM were going virtual,” says Wendt, whose team is trying to score a conference room at a Berlin hotel to set up camp for a hybrid EFM.

Wendt, and others, expect that some buyers will make the trek to Berlin, as well as festival representatives and the executive teams of films at the fest. “[We want] to make the best of it because we need to start the year on a positive note, and we need to get out and get the feeling that we’re at a festival,” she says.

Cecile Gaget at France’s Anton Capital will also attend, as the company is representing Claire Denis’s “Fire,” which is expected to be part of the competition roster, set to be unveiled Jan. 19.
“We’ll be on the ground to support the film’s team and the Berlinale,” notes Gaget, whose team will do the EFM online from a Paris apartment and then travel to Berlin for the weekend.

Fionnuala Jamison, managing director at France’s MK2 Films, which has at least one film in competition, also plans on attending the festival for a few days. “The Berlinale and EFM are always important for arthouse films,” says the exec, whose slate includes Mikhael Hers’s “Les passagers de la nuit” with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Emmanuelle Beart.

Last year, MK2 did more than €2 million ($2.2 million) worth of sales at the virtual EFM with their film “Petite Maman” by Celine Sciamma competing in the festival. The film has had a strong run across awards season, and was this week named best picture runner-up by the National Society of Film Critics in the U.S. “I had buyers in tears talking about the movie on Zoom,” Jamison recalls of last year’s virtual market.

But the online format works best with movies that are buzzed about or are backed by directors with strong track records, says Jamison. Like Gaget, she says the plan this year is to “start with Zoom meetings and then go to the festival to see people and socialize in cafés, as we did at Venice.”

Over at Paris-based Charades, co-founder Yohann Comte says he plans on going for four days and will attend the premiere of the company’s selected movie.

“I expect some producers, distributors of arthouse movies, film crews and festival programmers to be there, so it will be worth going,” says Comte, who plans to take meetings at cafés and lobbies, as he does in Toronto.

Italian sales agent Paola Corvino, head of Intramovies which has a film at the Berlinale, will send one representative from her team, but says the “big fear” is “getting stuck in a COVID hotel in Berlin” if they test positive prior to leaving Germany.

Jean-Christophe Simon at Berlin-based Films Boutique says the company will operate as it does in Venice, Toronto or Sundance.

“We’ll follow what we do at festivals that don’t have a market, meaning we’ll put ourselves in ‘festival mode’ and take meetings with people who are there,” says Simon, who adds that the Berlinale is considering giving accredited buyers privileged access to screenings.

“Allowing distributors to attend screenings will be key to encouraging them to attend, otherwise there’s no point for them to be in Berlin and watch movies on links,” Simon adds.

As far as an international presence from West Asia and Asia proper, the jury’s still out. Buoyed by the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival in December, there are promising signs that not everyone in the Arab film world plans on staying home.

“I’m planning to go unless they have a lockdown. The EFM is virtual, but I still want to go,” says Alaa Karkouti, head of Egypt-based distributor-producer Mad Solutions.

For Asian delegates, it’s still unclear how many companies will take the plunge on international travel. Many Korean sellers had hoped that Berlin would be their first market in well over a year, but it’s believed they’re now looking towards Cannes instead.

Patrick Frater contributed to this story.