American Indies At The Berlin Film Festival
by Scott Saunders
Berlin is the bar-code film festival. The organization here is
extraordinary, which shouldn't be surprising given the German reputation
for precision. Ticket distribution is the most remarkable I've seen
anywhere. Literally thousands of accredited film industry
representatives have come to Berlin and their film viewing patterns are
carefully tracked. When an accredited filmgoer requests a ticket, their
badge is scanned with a bar-code reader. Next, the film's title is
scanned from a bar-coded list and a computer prints a ticket on the
spot. If you get a ticket, you'd better use it. Attendance is
monitored by computer. If you don't use your ticket you stand a good
chance of being scolded the next time you request one. Big Brother has
come to Berlin.
The up-side of all this computerization is that filmmakers get reports
detailing exactly who has attended their screenings. I've seen
directors huddled over the reports with their producers, trying to see
which countries and which companies might be interested in buying their
film. This information is gold, particularly for small independents.
Berlin is a combination of big European premieres, smaller "specialty
films", and edgy experimental pieces. Somehow it all seems to work.
Berliners crowd the sidewalk outside the Zoo-Palast Theater, hoping to
buy a spare ticket to "The English Patient." Spike Lee is here to launch
"Get On The Bus" in Europe. Courtney Love is here with "The People
Vs. Larry Flynt."
These big premieres are the cause of a great deal of excitement in
Berlin, but the real festival is the one that presents less conventional
fare from around the world. And Berlin is arguably the preeminent
festival for launching American indie films in Europe. This festival
spotlights films like Stephen Winter's "Chocolate Babies," a hilarious,
and surprisingly serious film about a gang of
HIV-positive-terrorist-transvestites rampaging through New York City.
It was probably made with "The English Patient's" petty cash budget for an
afternoon, but it is energetic and engaging and it is afforded the
respect it deserves by the audiences here.
Berlin is also a film market, the world's largest after Cannes. The
market is the reason I happen to be here. My new film, "The Headhunter's
Sister," was selected to be one of nine films brought to the market by
the IFP's American Independents at the Berlin Market program. The
other films are Ira Sachs' "The Delta," recently picked up by Alliance
Releasing, Macky Alston's "Family Name," William Roth's "Floating," Danny
Leiner's "Layin' Low," Jay Chandraesekhar's "Puddle Cruiser," Evan Brenner's
"The Riddle," John O'Hagan's "Wonderland," and Rachel Reichman's "Work."
Many of the larger US companies are absent, preferring to wait for the
American Film Market but the European companies are here in force. The
market is essentially a big trade show. Film reps from countries all
over the world sit in booths hawking the film output of their respective
film industries. The IFP has a well-situated booth of its own connected
to the large Kodak encampment. Sales reps, festival directors and
distribution scouts trawl the three floor film center, moving from film
to film, booth to booth, and business card to business card.
One of the big topics of discussion at the festival is the sheer volume
of American Independent films circulating this year. Word is that
Sundance and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival each had over 900
submissions. Submissions in Europe were much the same. In Berlin, the
Forum received over 700 submissions, a very large number of which were
American films. This glut is causing concern among the European film
buyers and festival programmers. They complain that it is increasingly
difficult for their overburdened staffs to wade through the vast
quantity of material. One might think that this offers the buyers and
programmers a much greater selection, but they complain that they have
to work harder to find the kinds of films they need.