If the first sign of commerce is large piles of rubbish, business would appear to be booming at the Berlinale.
Two weeks ago, just as for the Berlin International Film Festival's director Dieter Kosslick announced that “The International” – Tom Twyker's high-budget thriller about corporate corruption – would be this year's opener, his underlings were carefully placing glossy brochures for the main corporate sponsors out front at the same press conference.
Meanwhile, abandoned leaflets and discarded promotional materials stack-up in piles at the European Film Market at the Martin Gropius Bau, the commercial heart of the festival as whole.
Dozens of film production and distribution companies from scores of different countries are here, apparently banded together into national camps for security. Despite the economic downturn, deals are being made, but the industry's money men are saying that things are quieter than last year.
According to the insider trade mags Variety, Screen International, and Hollywood Reporter, which are issuing daily editions over the course of the festival from temporary Berlin headquarters, some higher-profile, but weaker competition entries are looking especially vulnerable.
“Rage is unlikely to be seen by many real audiences, even on home territory,” reported the critic Lee Marshall for Screen International in a devastating one-star review of British director Sally Potter's clunky fashion industry satire. “After its misguided Berlin competition premier it seems destined to tour a few more festivals but theatrical sales, especially in these straightened times, are difficult to envisage.”
None of the critics seem especially impressed with the main films in competition. As of yesterday, the best received film to have been shown, based on Screen International's statistical tables, was Asghar Farhadi's Iranian social drama “About Elly,” averaging a 2.6 rating. But the poor performance of top-tier films may have opened doors to some smaller flicks this year.
One man trying to get his foot in those doors in enterprising ways is the Canadian filmmaker Judd Saal. A burly, affable man whom I meet distributing plastic grenades in the European Film Market's lobby. The incendiary give-away is part of a gonzo marketing strategy for his movie “Frag,” a documentary film focussed on professional gamers.
It is hard to know how the professional gaming industry has been affected by current economic conditions. But Saal's super-confident agent, Dan Shannon claims that business for him is going stupendously well. “I'm screening four films at the festival, and there is huge interest in all of them,” Shannon says, handing me a Frag DVD screener. “Now if you excuse me, I'm right in the middle of a negotiation.”
The kinds of negotiations Shannon conducts is only the final piece in the puzzle of the production jigsaw. Two men in Berlin at an earlier stage of development are the Londoners Mark Doyle and Hugh Gurney, two of three principles of the neophyte production company Fecund.
Doyle and Gurney are in Berlin under the sheltering umbrella of a UK Film Council program for promising film makers. “This is crucial,” Doyle admits. “Because it encourages people to talk to us, in a way that they probably wouldn't do if we were here on our own.”
The pair is looking for international production partners for their project “So Frankie, So Matthew” – a movie they describe as “a love story, murder mystery, a drama – what Mike Leigh would make if he made a murder mystery.” Visibly exhausted, if still good-humoured, Doyle notes that he has unfurled that pitch ten times that day and that both he and his partner have run out of business cards.
“A lot of networking is going on in the bars,” says Doyle, “It's a major place for card-exchange. But the big struggle is really trying to remember who you are giving cards to and why.”
But they still seem fairly happy with their own experiences so far. “This is our first time in Berlin, and so we have nothing to compare it to,” Doyle admits. “Also, because at this point we are dealing with a script, we don't have a lot of package attached at this time. So basically, we're just asking people whether they would be interested in reading this type of material. And so far, everyone has been.”
Doyle and Gurney went into the festival with a fairly conventional plan. One filmmaker with a more eccentric mission is the German artist Stefan Zeven, an intense guy with blonde hair who orders a glass of Sekt at ten minutes to noon when I interview him in a café far away from the festival bustle in downtown Berlin.
Zeven has an entry this year in Form Expanded, the art wing of the Berlinale programme, a short and moving piece called “Farewell.” The film shows a woman looking back at the camera she leaves as a passenger in a car. Zeven fixes a tight zoom on her profile, so woman never seems to get further away. Instead, the picture slowly degrades in quality as the real distances increases, until the image decomposes entirely.
“I'm interested in other things than stories and character – more technical things to do with the medium itself,” Zeyen says. He worked for a long time in the film industry, and so most of his productions are relatively cheap. “I have the contacts already so I know where to get stuff.” But “Farewell” was more expensive. He had to shoot on film, he explains, because the picture is also a farewell to film, and the romance of film, in a world that is moving to video.
For his next project, Zeven's wants to make an experimental film called “The Red Carpet” consisting of the shots taken of him and a companion as he arrives at a film festival. “The problem is that the Forum Expanded doesn't have a red carpet, it has an opening. So what I'm hoping to do is meet someone who will let me walk down the Red Carpet next year, even though I haven't made a film.” It's a pretty good metaphor for an industry dependent on expectations, and who people think you are, as much as anything else.