Indie cinemas battle for Berlin’s spotlight

Indie cinemas are a dying breed the world over... except in Berlin, home to nearly 60 small arthouse and neighbourhood venues. The fight for survival is brutal. But as Exberliner magazine's Alice Harrison reports, some of them are even getting the red carpet treatment at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Indie cinemas battle for Berlin's spotlight
Photo: Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

This year, for the first time, the Berlinale is taking time out from its Potsdamer Platz Palast to go local. With one premiere a night at independent venues across the city, 10 of Berlin’s smaller cinemas will be opening their doors to some of the biggest shots in the industry. “It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ to the cinemas,” says festival director Dieter Kosslick. “These are valuable sites of culture, communication and creativity. And we must do our best to ensure they’re kept alive.” With about 60 arthouse cinemas – ranging from reputed historical venues to pocket-Kinos, all packed with experimental, highbrow and indie treats – Berlin’s lively film landscape is comparable only to that of Paris, Europe’s cinephile mecca. “I think it’s a great idea,” beams Christian Bräuer, managing director of the Yorck cinema group, which owns a dozen neighbourhood cinemas. “And it’s a sign that the industry acknowledges its dependence on Berlin’s arthouse venues.” Three of the Berlinale’s 10 venues – Capitol Dahlem, Neues Off in Neukölln and the Odeon in Schöneberg – belong to Yorck.

But not everyone shares his excitement. Suzan Beerman of Eiszeit, a small Kreuzberg theatre, shuffles in her chair and frowns. “It’s a nice gesture, I suppose,” she says unconvincingly, and shuffles again. “But I worry that the more exposure these niche films get elsewhere, the less likely people are to watch them at Eiszeit.” Tucked away in the second courtyard of a disused factory, the cinema is 28 years old and seats a maximum of 142 people in two screening rooms. Beerman is acclaimed for her arthouse programming, but the “flying red carpet” set in motion by the Berlinale is headed for better-known, “historical” venues.

Beerman’s complaint represents more than just frustration at being left out: it hints at a quiet battle being fought in Berlin’s arthouse scene. In many cities, the prevalence and popularity of multiplexes has made independent picture houses a dying breed. Not in Berlin. At last count (in 2008), 70 percent of tickets sold here were at cinemas with one to three screens. Good news for the miniplexes, then? Not necessarily. Berlin’s indies are so abundant that they’re treading on each other’s toes. And while the venues compete to woo the crowds, the politics of distribution tends to play into the hands of bigger capacity Kinos. When Germany’s most famous indie director Fatih Akin released the keenly-awaited Soul Kitchen in Berlin at Christmas time, there were only fourteen reels to go around. The cinemas with fewer screens were trampled in the stampede.

The Arthouse Chain

So how do Berlin’s independent cinemas stake their claim in a saturated market? One approach is safety in numbers. This is exemplified by Yorck – since the 1970s, the group has been acquiring rundown old cinemas and restoring them to their former splendour. It currently presides over 14 venues, including two outdoor ones and several of the city’s best-known Kinos: the Delphi Palast, Babylon Kreuzberg and Kino International. Technically speaking, Yorck is a chain owned by a Dresden-based company – a fact which necessarily hoists a question mark over the ‘independent’ branding. But according to Bräuer,“ each cinema retains its unique aesthetic and charm, and its anchoring im Kiez”. With so many cinemas, the Yorck group has become a popular port of call for distributors. The management allots a programme to each site that suits its clientele, but allows for intervenue trading if it appears certain films might fare better elsewhere. Customers are gently persuaded to stay in the loop with loyalty cards.

A Venue for Everything

“I’m just not interested in talking about it,” barks the voice on the phone. Meet Timothy Grossman. Few people on Berlin’s cinema circuit have ruffled as many feathers as the owner of the Babylon-Mitte. His is the only movie theatre in the city to receive regular funding from the state government (as of January, this totalled some €350,000 a year). Yet since he took over the Babylon in 2005, Grossman has been subject to seething criticism from his competitors, local unions and Die Linke. They say his staff is poorly paid and his programme is too commercial to merit large pots of public money.

But Grossman stumps his critics on one front: the Babylon’s schedule tops almost all others when it comes to breadth and originality. Last year, an average of 80 titles were screened each month: foreign films, short films, cult films, documentaries, silent films… you name it, Babylon’s shown it. And Grossman’s a savvy businessman to boot. One of his most original and successful ideas has been to outsource the programming, turning this beautiful former theatre, an example of the 1920s “Neues Bauen” architectural movement, into a venue for bookers. Here, aspirant film curators with a feasible idea for a festival, series or retrospective can turn their concept into reality. It’s a clever approach in a city bursting with enterprising minds and DIY creativity. Moviegoers get to see an eclectic selection of independent film festivals curated by people who really care about what they’re doing. And, in theory at least, it’s a win-win situation for the Babylon: the collaborations enhance the venue’s line-up and profile whilst keeping programming and marketing expenses (most of which are covered by the event organisers themselves) down to a minimum.

Serving the Niches

While the Babylon banks on a combination of form, content and customers, several arthouses have opted instead to target more specialised crowds. With 137 seats, Schöneberg’s Xenon is one of the city’s smallest cinemas, but its primary address for gay and lesbian films. Wedding’s Alhambra caters to its Kiez by maintaining a high turnover of Turkish films. Fsk, in Kreuzberg’s SO36 district, is known for the quality of its OV arthouse programming, and to Englishspeakers for hosting the Britspotting festival. Last year, it also also played host to the Poles; the POLSKA film festival returns in April.

Fsk has a good eye for business as well as engaging cinema; by exploiting both qualities, it’s turned the acquisition tussle to its own advantage. “We were fed up with rarely getting hold of the films we liked, or considered important,” says Barbara Suhren. “We’d go to festivals and spend so much time and energy trying to persuade distributors to rent us copies for just four or five days. So we started buying a small selection instead, and lending them on the Berlin market.” Spurred on by a growing national demand for original language films, Suhren and her colleagues have tapped into steady Swiss supplies of French works subtitled in German. Peripher, the cinema’s distribution arm, is modestly stocked, but works with popular venues like the Hackesche Höfe Filmtheater and Filmkunst 66.

Digitalisation: Adapt or Die?

The “Berlinale Goes Kiez” outreach programme comes at a pivotal point in the ever-evolving story of cinema – and perhaps even constitutes a sort of strategic sweet talk. Since its inception, moving image technology has proved itself to be quite the chameleon, and movie theatres have had no choice but to cater to its whims.

In the 1930s, the move from silent to sound wiped out swathes of smaller cinemas that couldn’t sustain the cost of conversion. The 1950s saw various wide-screen and multi-projector fads: the likes of early 3D and Cinerama. Now the democratisation of film via digital technology is, paradoxically, forcing an extortionate remodelling of cinemas. So far, Yorck’s Kino International is the only ’independent’ venue in Berlin to have undergone complete digitalisation – not a big surprise, given the fact that the process costs more than €70,000 per screen. While the CinemaxXes of this world ride the storm, the independents fear the apocalypse is nigh. “Without help from the industry or the state, the number of cinemas in Germany will probably be halved by 2020,” says Bräuer of Yorck cinema group. Until now, any effort on the part of the government and the unions to deliver an aid package has failed.

Ask any independent Kino owner in Berlin what the future holds and they’ll respond with a shrug. “Perhaps we’re headed for a new New Wave,” Barbara Suhren says with a wry smile. “I seriously doubt it, but you just never know.” Given the many historical shifts cinema has endured, any forecast – bright or bleak – could be correct. Yet, in defiance of common perception about the effects of online viewing, Berliners continue to consume cinema in its natural habitat, the movie theatre. In 2009, ticket sales were up by 6.9 percent from the previous year. The competition between independent venues is tough, but away from the controlling hand of large studios and distributors, the city’s smaller cinemas are still delivering challenging and innovative programmes to their clientele.

With the Competition (for the heavy hitters), the Forum (for radical and experimental cinema), two youth sections and hosts of spinoff events, the Berlinale is keenly aware of the scope of both its medium and its audience. The “Berlinale Goes Kiez” initiative might, as Suzan Beerman suspects, hint at tokenism, but maybe we should share in Christian Braüer’s enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s a gesture that will help to share the spoils of the distribution battle and introduce new viewers to smaller venues. And, for 10 days at least, those viewers might even be amongst the biggest names in Hollywood.

For more information about “Berlinale Goes Kiez”, visit

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‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.