AFM Shift Created a Vacuum Being Filled by Berlin’s Film Mart

By Lucy Cohen Blatter

Whereas the Berlin Film Festival attracts high-wattage stars, it’s the concurrent nine-day European Film Market (EFM) where the wheeling and dealing takes place. While actors and actresses vie for coveted Golden and Silver Bear awards at the Berlinale, executives get down to business at the Art Deco-style Martin-Gropius-Bau (MGB), located minutes away from the festival headquarters at Potsdamer Platz.

Ken Dubow
Porchlight Entertainment’s Ken DuBow

The Berlinale and its symbiotic market, EFM — which will take place February 7-17 — is the first big film event of 2008, kicking off a year of almost non-stop film trade events. Beki Probst, head of the European Film Market (who is celebrating her 20th anniversary with the market this year) said the American Film Market’s date shift, from February to November, has helped EFM increase its numbers. “There’s a significant time gap between the European Film Market and Cannes now, which makes it easier for buyers and distributors who were once unable to attend the market in addition to AFM. We’ve found that to be the case with many Asian companies.”

“The change of the AFM’s date has undeniably made the EFM more important to us,” said Ruby Rondina, festival and publicity manger at Canada’s Cinemavault Releasing. She added that her company’s modus operandi at the market involves sales, since most of its acquisitions efforts are concentrated on the earlier Sundance Film Festival.

As of press time, the expected number of exhibitors this year was up from last year (which Probst described as a “record year”). A total of 400 companies from 50 countries have registered to exhibit.
The arrival of new faces in the last couple of years has caused market organizers to expand space to an area called Exhibitor Offices at 11 Potsdamer Platz, and has caused distributors to take hotel suites.

Last year, there was a good deal of frustration from companies holding court at the Exhibitor Offices, who complained that buyers didn’t know where to find them and that foot traffic was low. “It was a 10-minute walk from the Martin-Gropius to the offices and it was freezing cold,” said Andre Relis, vp of Sales and Acquisitions at Vision Films. “There was a problem with the marketing and publicity of the business center. We would have appreciated more walk-bys,” he said.

While EFM’s Probst agreed that foot traffic is scarcer at the annex, she guaranteed that this year, thanks to advertisements, signage and information booths, buyers will have an easier time making their way out of the Martin-Gropius. And once again, a free shuttle will run between the two locations. While she recognized that many of the small- and mid-sized companies who hold court at the nearby offices would prefer to distribute at the MGB, Probst explained that, “It’s not a huge space and we have to give first priority to our clients who have been with us for many years.”

One company that managed to snag a space in the MGB is Porchlight Entertainment. Its president of Worldwide Distribution, Ken DuBow — who described EFM as a “back door into Europe” and expects to see broadcasters in addition to theatrical and DVD distributors at the market — said his placement in the upstairs area of the MGB gives him reason to bring a full sales team to the market. While DuBow said he probably would have opted to take a suite at the Hyatt had he not gotten space in the main building, he celebrated his premium (and less expensive) placement. “It’s really important to be in the same spot as everyone else,” he said.

Mondo TV’s Sales coordinator, Roberto Farina, said that even those exhibiting at the MGB last year had problems with the market’s logistics. “Last year, very few people came into the exhibition area. We had days in which the only activity was spending time reading magazines such as VideoAge. This, in our opinion, happened because too many companies had suites in various city hotels. Also, two big halls on the second floor were taken by majors, so people entering the MGB did not feel the need to come back again to visit the exhibition floor.” Regardless, Mondo TV will, once again, sell its cartoon-centric content in the Italian pavilion of the MGB this year.

But many companies are still opting for completely different locales. Screen Media Ventures, for one, will exhibit at the Ritz Carlton, along with some other independents. In addition to presenting the “most eminent independent library of films,” according to the company’s vp of International Sales, Michael Dwyer, this year, the firm will unveil nearly 100 Universal titles for DVD distribution in Europe.

Doug Schwalbe, head of International at New York-based Classic Media, has decided to forgo the suites and booths altogether, but will attend the market, for the first time, to meet current and potential clients. As a company focusing primarily on kids’ entertainment, EFM has never been that important. “Most of that business gets done at MIP and MIPCOM,” he said. But this year, Schwalbe’s coming armed with a new adult property. “My main objective is to promote our brand new non-kids program, Turok, which revolves around a cult videogame franchise,” he said.

As of press time, Rigel Entertainment CEO John Laing had not decided whether he would take a suite at the Ritz, but said his choice to screen and hold meetings there last year worked out well. But Laing agreed with many of his colleagues, bemoaning the fact that the market is so spread out. While he emphasized the fact that Berlinale is a premiere film festival, he said the market’s facilities leave much to be desired. “Facilities are what make a market good, and the layout is just not as market-friendly as the others — it’s even less convenient than MIFED used to be.” Classic’s Schwalbe agreed: “I have to say, I’d rather be in Milan in October than Berlin in February,” he said, referring to the fact that EFM has, in many ways, taken the place of the now-defunct MIFED market.

Laing also pointed out that with AFM in November, the Hong Kong Film Festival in March, and Cannes in May, the industry is saturated with film markets. “But that said, we’re easy prey. If you create a forum and buyers attend, the sellers will have to be there too,” he said.

Vision’s Relis said that for him, the presence of film, DVD and documentary buyers, as well as the festival’s surrounding “buzz,” have made the market a “must attend.”  He added: “There’s definitely a focus on Germany. But we’ve had great success solidifying deals with buyers from all over the world there.” Thanks to its music division, Vision Music, Relis said the company is often approached by German producers looking to make deals. “We haven’t picked up anything from the market in the last three years since we focus on selling, but we’re always open to that,” he said.

According to Rüdiger Böss, svp, Programming Acquisitions at ProSiebenSat.1, the allure of the market can be traced to the fact that “U.S. independents are there in full-force [ever since] the shift of the AFM. The market is more important than it has been in the past,” he said. At EFM, Böss and his ProSieben colleagues will buy films for all of its TV channels — including Prosieben, Sat1, Kabel Eins and SBS stations — in “all forms, including pay and VoD.”

Aside from meetings, the market has several different components. Under the auspices of the EFM lies the Berlinale Co-Production Market, a three-day event where international producers and financiers meet to find partners for selected projects; Straight From Sundance gives international buyers first crack at new films from the American independent scene; Works in Progress is a forum for young talented Latin American filmmakers offering buyers and sales agents a chance to see talent in its early stages and help the filmmakers get on their feet; and German Cinema is a curated series that promotes German cinema to the international market.

While extra events, and logistics are undoubtedly important, EFM’s Probst said, “Successful films are what make a successful market. You can have a smooth market with great planning, but if there are no success stories and no movies with good buzz, you can forget about the rest. So before the market we’re always hoping for a couple of gems.”