Doing the Berlinale

I was extremely fortunate to be invited to the Berlin International Film Festival by the German Federal Government last month. I participated in an information tour of the Berlinale together with 25 other guests from around the world, made up of film festival programmers, journalists, and filmmakers from counties as diverse as Cuba, Israel, Tunisia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Australia, Pakistan and Kenya. It was a behind-the-scenes look at aspects of the festival, while at the same time getting the opportunity to experience it firsthand.

This was my first time at the Berlinale and it was a wonderfully soft entry to what is one of the four big festivals and markets for the film industry: Sundance (no market) in January, Berlin in February, Cannes in May, and Toronto in September, with the standalone American Film Market (AFM) bringing up the rear (and the dregs some would say) in November.

Berlin sells over 335,000 tickets to the approximately 400 films it shows. Around 20,000 professional visitors attend the European Film Market, Coproduction Market and Talents programme that make up the industry side of the festival.

As part of the tour we received briefings from the heads of the Panorama and Forum sections of the festival and the World Cinema Fund, and from the artistic director of the German Film Archive – Museum for Film and Television. We heard from four emerging German directors about their highly awarded projects, and received a lecture on New German Cinema. We had the opportunity to visit Berlin’s oldest film school—University of Film Konrad Wolf. We had a formal lunch with the Deputy Director-General for Culture and Communication and Director of Cultural Relations Policy of the Federal Foreign Office, where we each had to speak for our meal. And we joined about 500 other international industry people at the Goethe-Institut film breakfast, where they handed out their own film awards. And of course we could cue each morning with hundreds of others to try and get tickets to the films we wanted to see.

For those who don’t know, film festivals with markets fall into layers: the glamour with the film stars, the film festival with the movies and the punters, and the film market where the business is done. We got to see some of the glamour by attending the opening night, but it was essentially the festival and business sides from then on.

Three New Zealand films premiered at Berlin: DEGNZ member and director Tusi Tamasese’s One Thousand Ropes had it’s world premiere in the Panorama section, and opens in NZ this month. DEGNZ member and director Jackie Van Beek’s film Inland Road world premiered in the Generation 14 Plus section. And director Tearepa Kahi had the European premiere of Poi E, also in 14 Plus. All films received strong reviews.

Another DEGNZ member and director Niki Si’ulepa was the only Kiwi selected to attend Berlinale Talents, which invites 250 emerging international filmmakers to a series of workshops, panel disussions and events in a separate part of the festival.

New Zealand is thankfully a participant in the Berlinale NATIVe section that focuses on Indigenous film, run by expat Kiwi Maryanne Redpath who also heads Generation. NATIVe brings together indigenous filmmakers and organisations that gather around Berlinale and the world’s biggest indigenous film festival immagineNATIVE of Toronto. Libby Hakaraia and Tainui Stephen of the Maoriland Film Festival in Otaki have been driving Aotearoa NZ’s presence at the NATIVe stand, which this year according to imagineNATIVE’s Industry Director Daniel Northway Frank had good traffic through it.

In The Film Collaborative’s online blog American Jeffrey Murphy writing on this year’s festival said he revels in the glorious diversity of culture and languages at the Berlinale but that the festival lived up to it’s reputation of hit and miss programming, which was in his opinion due to the favouring of films “ from Eastern Europe and the like” rather than English or French titles.

In 2016 I attended three small film markets in Melbourne, New York and Prague, but the size of the European Film Market at Berlinale was huge in comparison. The EFM operates out of two official venues, Martin-Gropius-Bau and the Marriott Hotel, and you have to shuttle or walk between the two. There were hundreds of sales agents and a small number of film commissions (more like the old Film New Zealand than our NZFC) and funding bodies flogging their wares to distributors, producers and others across five days, while the Coproduction Market was held in another building where up to 35 projects were presented for coproduction and financing.

As is happening elsewhere, high-end TV drama and Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) is having an impact at the Berlinale. This year was the third that the festival has run a small market for high-end TV drama projects to find coproduction partners and financing. Cannes plans to dedicate an entire market to TV, over and above the two MIPs that already happen there.

The film industry globally is still in flux due to digital disruption. While transactional VOD and Subsciption VOD are starting to show real signs of revenue life, the old business model for film is essentially gone. Real revenues from theatrical exhibition go almost solely to tentpole films. If you are an indie, and all New Zealand films are, you’re exceptionally lucky (and or talented) if your film will survive four weeks in theatres, and there’s little after that to bolster revenue streams with DVD and blu-ray sales and rentals in decline. For an insight into revenues for Australian films, read this commercial analysis from Screen Australia.

One ray of hope from Berlin was that sales agents may be pre-buying again because they are having to compete with Amazon and Netflix for the best films. Hopefully this is a trend and it will grow.

Financials aside the Berlin International Film Festival is a true celebration of film, both critical and commercial, and an experience I won’t forget as a Berlinale newbie.

I’d like to thank the German Federal Government, the Goethe-Institut and the New Zealand Film Commission for their support of my visit.


Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Last updated on 21 February 2018