Over the weekend I accepted an invitation from Ferrari of North America to test-drive a brand new Ferrari “California.” With a professional race car driver in my passenger seat telling me how to best utilize the car’s ridiculously amazing abilities, I cruised the Italian rocket through the mountains and up the coast in Malibu for an hour. Simply put, it was awesome. Thus, if the tone of this article seems a bit more positive than usual, it’s because driving the Ferrari put me in a damn good mood!

Last week we discussed how we sold the sci-fi film “Nydenion” at the EFM in Berlin last week, but this week we’re going to focus on the Berlin International Film Festival itself. This article will dive into what it means for independent filmmakers to play the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as how it affects the distribution value and release strategy of the films that are fortunate enough to be selected for it.

I’ve always sensed that several independent filmmakers are aware of what playing Berlin means, but they are not privy to the festival’s characteristics, or types of films they gravitate toward. Thus, I hope this article can shed a bit of light on the festival known for it’s coveted “Golden Bear” award.

Berlin Offers Worldwide Distribution Value
The Berlin International Film Festival is one of the most prestigious and influential film festivals on earth. By most accounts, it’s a solid #2 worldwide, only behind the Festival De Cannes (aka The Cannes Film Festival). Having just completed its 61st festival, Berlin has a rich history of excellent programming.  Thus, major distributors worldwide – not just in America – look to Berlin to supply them with superb films. In fact, playing Berlin may actually have more value for international distributors than it does for American studios, and American studios value Berlin quite highly.

Berlin Will Trigger European Film and Television Sales
Since The Berlin International Film Festival is deeply respected by all major worldwide distributors, playing the festival will immediately trigger sales in Europe. While not every European territory will choose to play the film theatrically, most of them will offer television, satellite and cable sales. Filmmakers may not be able to retire on these sales, but they will be impressed by the healthy income the European sales create.

Germany Is An Internationally Substantial Film Territory
Germany is the largest film territory outside of North America, so when an independent film looks where to sell their film internationally, the German territory will be worth the most outside of North America. The German sale will also set the bar for all other territory sales, including Japan, which is the second biggest international territory. Thus, having a film thrive in Berlin will definitely enhance its value in Germany, which will in turn, enhance its value worldwide.

Berlin Gravitates To “Art Films”
I’m not saying The Berlin International Film Festival, also known as the “Berlinale,” doesn’t program major American studio films – because they do – all major film festivals have to in order to keep in the good graces of the world’s most substantial entertainment providers. But, more so than any other major film festival, Berlin chooses to program art films. By “art films,” I mean that this festival is more concerned with a film’s craft, vision and aesthetic nature, than it is about the film’s commercial value.

Berlin’s tendency to program art films is great news for filmmakers who make them, but not so good for filmmakers who make genre films or mainstream commercial films. Even though they will program such films on occasion, their track record over the last six-plus decades shows a definite slant toward well-made art films.

Berlin Takes Program Risks
Since Berlin loves art films, they are also well versed in programming risky films that most other festivals won’t take a risk on.  This year they programmed an Indian film titled “Gandu,” (aka A*****e) which is an incredibly well made, brutally offensive and visually stimulating attack on the senses.  Truth be told, Slamdance programmed “Gandu,” first, which is where I saw it last month in Park City. In any event, the film is very representative of the risks Berlin will take.

Berlin can afford to take programming risks like “Gandu,” because the festival is financially sound, and it doesn’t have to appease sponsors with their programming choices. Yes, Berlin has “an army of sponsors,” but the festival also has several truckloads of its own cash, and when you have your own cash, you can program whatever the hell you want.

Filmmakers who are developing a risky film should consider Berlin to be the first major festival to contact and submit to.

Germans Take The Film Industry Very Seriously
I can’t emphasize this point enough. Throughout my worldwide travels with Lonely Seal Releasing, my international film and television distribution company, I have found Germans to be the most serious film industry professions on earth. They take the film industry as serious as they take brain surgery, and that’s no exaggeration. Germans are also are technically superb and impressively organized.

Thus, The Berlin International Film Festival expects filmmakers to be as professional as they are when they either contact or submit to the festival. Simply put, filmmakers are only given one shot to make a first impression, so make it count. Of course, the submitted film itself will serve as your best (or worst) first impression, but your direct dealings with the festival should be nothing less than completely professional.

In closing, the key to thriving in Berlin is to understand the nature of the festival. Thus, filmmakers may have a great film, but it simply may not be right to play the Berlinale.

In fact, sometimes it’s a blessing to not play Berlin, because distributors worldwide may deem an otherwise commercial film as being an “art film.”  While there’s nothing wrong with being deemed an art film, the two words “art” and “film” in distributors talk, translates to “I can get away with offering and paying a hell of a lot less for this film.”

I hope everyone had a relaxing Presidents Day, I thank you for lending me your eyes and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

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  1. Josh says:

    Just FYI, the South Asian International Film Festival in NYC programmed Gandu first back in October. We, at Twitch, posted two reviews of the film back then. It is an amazing piece of work from a very unlikely source.

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