BERLIN 2000: Biz Light at the Berlin Market
by Sandy Mandelberger
Housed in its new home in the soaring atrium of the Debis Haus, Daimler-Benz' futuristic corporate headquarters at Potsdamer Platz, the film market section of the Berlin Film Festival ended the weekend before last with only a smattering of deals and many film companies concerned about the continued softness of the international market. As one leading film seller quipped, "now we have a beautiful new environment in which to do no business."
To be fair, the new facilities for booth exhibition and market film screenings are vastly superior to the comfy but hopelessly dated environs of the old Cine Center in the former West Berlin. Despite last minute electrical and phone glitches, film sellers were generally pleased with the spaciousness of their new digs. Concerns that for the first time office facilities and screening rooms were in different locations abated after the first few days, although it did tend to lower the "walk through" traffic that sellers from smaller territories had traditionally counted on.
The only major complaint came from those who had chosen to screen works-in-progress in video format. American producers' representative John Tilley pulled video screenings of his offerings "The Altoona Riding Club" and "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" mid-Market because of poor video projection quality.
American Indies Lose Ground
Despite sweeping the Festival's major awards, American indies had a poor showing in all the Festival sections. With the exception of Golden Bear Winner "Magnolia" from mini-major New Line Cinema, the Competition Section, which in the past has honored such indie milestones as "The Wedding Banquet" and "Three Seasons," did not screen any independent titles (with the exception of Mary Harron's "American Psycho," which screened out of competition).
The Panorama and Forum sections, long bastions of edgy American independent titles from first time directors, concentrated mainly on US documentaries. Reaction was strongest for "Paragraph 175," co-directed by the Oscar-winning team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of Harvey Milk"). The film, which was co-produced by Home Box Office and the UK's Channel Four, was picked up for theatrical release by New Yorker Films for the US, with Canadian sales company Films Transit juggling a number of offers from remaining European television outlets.
Noah Cowan's Cowboy Booking International acquired US rights to Jem Cohen and Peter Siller's "Benjamin Smoke," a portrait of an HIV-positive musician from Atlanta whose band Smoke is a Southern-fried mixture of country, blues, jazz and punk. Cowboy will release the pic in New York this summer and the rest of the US later in the year. The film's international sales agent, the ubiquitous Films Transit, is set to announce other international sales on the film.
Another documentary generating strong interest was the digital video production "The Worlds of Mei Lanfang," directed by Mei Juin Chen, a moving portrait of Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang. Sharan Sklar, until recently head of Blow Up Pictures, the digital video unit of Open City Pictures ("Three Seasons"), was in Berlin repping the film.
Sklar's other Berlin title came to the Market without international representation but left with a sales agent and considerable buzz in its wake. "George Washington," directed by David Gordon Green, a message movie about a group of kids in a poor Southern town who try to transcend the violence raging around them, was snapped up by world sales agent Christa Saredi ("Breaking The Waves") and is being heavily promoted by Saredi at this week's American Film Market in Los Angeles.
Two other indie features were warmly received but are still waiting to strike distributor gold. Roger Kass of legal firm Pryor, Cashman, Sherman, and Flynn is fielding offers for Nisha Ganatra's "Chutney Popcorn." "A Sudden Loss of Gravity," a 16mm film directed by Todd Verow set in 1980s suburbia, is hoping to find US distribution as it begins to make the rounds of US and international film festivals.
There was much speculation as to why such Sundance hits as "Girlfight," "Chuck and Buck," "Love and Sex," "The Tao of Steve" and "Two Family House" did not screen in Berlin. One Festival programmer confided that Berlin is becoming more sensitive to Sundance's worldwide reputation and press exposure and had actively decided to pass on the films. Others predicted that the films are being readied for the Cannes Film Festival in May, giving sales companies more lead time to do proper promotion. Others pointed to the disappointing international box office performance of many recent indie titles, particularly in the lucrative German market, that has diminished international interest in the next "big thing."
There continued the sense among many industry observers that documentaries are now much stronger than fiction films in the indie sector. However, those documentaries have a limited international life, almost never receiving theatrical exposure and relegated to limited public television and specialized home video outlets.
US Distributors Cautious But Buying
US distribution companies were actively scouring the Market for international titles, including bleary-eyed reps from Attitude Films, Cinevista, Fine Line, First Run, Samuel Goldwyn, Kino International, Miramax, Picture This!, Strand, Trimark, USA Films and Zeitgeist.
New York-based Zeitgeist Films ("Irma Vep", "Taste of Cherry") was among the most active, nailing down North American rights for Teddy Award winner (for Best Gay Film), "Gouttes D'Eau Sur Pierres Brulantes" ("Raining Drops on Burning Rocks") by French director Francois Ozon, a provocative study of shifting relationships based on an unproduced play by German icon Rainer Warner Fassbinder, and "Witchcraft," a sumptuously photographed Icelandic film directed by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson that plays like a 17th century version of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."
Sony Pictures Classics ("Run Lola Run", "All About My Mother"), a Berlin veteran, snapped up North American rights to the Welsh drama "Solomon and Gaenor" one day before its nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, bringing the distributor the distinction of repping three out of the five contenders in the Oscar race.
Strand Releasing is actively circling a number of pictures, but according to co-President Jon Gerrans, "the prices that most international sales companies are looking for is way too high for the US market." While understandably keeping close to the chest about projects he is bidding on, Gerrans singled out "Breaking The Silence," starring Berlin Jury President Gong Li, as one of the few commercial pictures at Berlin that is still unsold for the US.
Announcements are expected at this week's American Film Market on the US pick-up of other buzz titles, including Rotterdam Tiger Award Winner "Suzhou River" (China), Matthias Glasner's "Fandango" (Germany) starring "Run Lola Run" star Moritz Bleibtreu and the sexy Spanish bisexual triangle drama "Segunda Piel" ("Second Skin") featuring Javier Bardem and Cecilia Roth.
Other major deals announced in Berlin include Fortissimo Film Sales' sale of Clara Law's Cannes hopeful "The Goddess of 1967" to Ocean Films (France), the Cuban-Spanish co-production "Un Paraiso Bajo Las Estrellas" ("A Paradise Under the Stars"), which sold to Scandinavia, Switzerland and German powerhouse distributor Kinowelt, "The Einstein of Sex," German director Rosa von Praunheim's fictional account of pioneering sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, which sold to Benelux distributor Cinemien, and France's "Resources Humaines" ("Human Resources"), which sales agent Celluloid Dreams sold to Italy, Spain, Benelux, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal and Brazil.
One of the more curious film offerings being sampled by international distributors was a 1993 Austrian documentary "Die Wahlkamperfer" ("The Campaigner") about far-rightist Jorg Haider, who has formed a coalition government in Austria. The film, which has been updated by its director Helmut Grasser, focuses on the controversial politician and the voters who made his triumph possible. During the Market, a who's who of Austrian film directors, producers and professionals took out a full page ad in the Berlin daily denouncing Haider's assension in Austria.
Raising eyebrows (and possible lawsuits) was the announcement that Trust Film Sales, the international sales arm of prolific Danish producer Zentropa Films ("The Celebration," "Mifune") will be selling "Don's Plum," the US feature directed by RD Robb that features former Robb friends Leonard Di Caprio and Tobey Maguire. The film, produced over 5 years ago before Di Caprio and Maguire achieved superstar status, has been blocked from release by lawsuits but international interest in it is, of course, quite high. Trust hopes to screen the film in the market at the Cannes Film Festival.
It was also announced that Tom Twyker's follow-up to his international smash "Run Lola Run" had been picked up for international sales by French powerhouse Le Studio Canal Plus. The film, which stars "Lola" herself, Franka Potente, will be ready in the Spring and is widely touted as a Cannes shoo-in.
With almost all film sellers and a majority of buyers expected at this week's American Film Market, Berlin is seen as the first part of a one-two punch, a filmmaker friendly showcase for projects that will ultimately be bought and sold (or not) in the hallways of the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica.
[Sandy Mandelberger is President of International Media Resources, a marketing, promotion and editorial content provider, working with international producers, distributors and film festivals.]