How to get the most out of the Berlin Film Festival and the European Film Market

As the 67th Berlinale hits its stride, here are some tips for getting to grips with the first major film industry event of the year

10 February 2017
By Katie Ellen
Katie looks after the distribution of lottery funding for specialised and British films, with particular focus on New Models awards for films with alternative approaches to distribution, cross-media and creative marketing strategies.

Berlin 2.jpg

Gods Own Country (2017)
January is over, the days are getting longer, the temperature is getting warmer – which means its time to stop thinking about spring, and instead put on every item of clothing you own and head over to Berlin for the 67th Berlinale and the European Film Market (EFM).
 
For many people who work in the UK film industry, the Berlinale/EFM is really the first major film event in the year. Of course Sundance happens in January but it is US indie-focused, without a formal film market, and a fraction of the size of the movie behemoth that hits Potsdamer Platz every February. 
 
The audience-facing Berlinale festival programmes almost 400 titles, most of which are premieres, either European or World. And then there is the EFM, the reason most people go there. With 1000+ market screenings and 500+ exhibitors from all over the world, this is a place where film business gets done and where the films audiences will be watching in 2017/18 will be bought.
 
At festivals, one of the major benefits is that you get to see films before the hype. You can make your own judgements and stumble upon gems before you have heard the views of others, or read spoilers in the reviews. Seeing Moonlight at the Toronto Film Festival last September, for example, was an incredibly special moment as very few people in the audience had any idea of the calibre of the film they were about to watch. A rather stunned silence filled the cinema as the end credits rolled. The flipside is that, since very few people have seen any of these films, in such a vast programme it’s hard choose what to watch. The hit rate is likely to be pretty low – the skill is to keep it from being non-existent!
 
At festivals, I am on the lookout for strong new independent films from exciting filmmakers, new or established; films which will get some sort of British distribution, but are not mainstream titles; films which may need audience development support to help the public find out about them. Berlin is great place to get a feel for some of the films that are going to be coming out in the next twelve months as there are the festival selections and also the market (finished films being screened, new promos being launched and pre-sales being announced loudly in the trades).
 
image of berlinale bear lit up in Berlin city center
 
I’ll be there for six days and, after a few years of practice, I am hoping that some of the methods below will improve my chances of coming back having seen some films to get excited about. (Last year one of my favourite finds was The Fits which is finally being released on 24 February with BFI Film Audience Network support.)
 
1) The schedule is already out (the EFM phone/tablet app is pretty good so I’d recommend downloading that). I always begin by picking some key titles that I want to see. Those might be films in the main festival line-up that are being highlighted in the trades, all of which will publish feature articles on new festival or market films they are tipping. Round-ups of top titles coming out of Sundance are also good for reading about hot films that may also be playing in Berlin. The EFM helpfully now has a Sundance at EFM strand. A lot of the acquisition deals that were made in Sundance are also starting to be announced heading into Berlin, as the sales agents want to use the heat from the key deals to launch their next wave of sales – for example Protagonist has just announced that Picturehouse bought the UK rights for God’s Own Country which will premiere next in Panorama at the Berlinale – so those announcements are also good to help identify ones to watch.
 
2) Search by sales agent. If you know your sales agents then you know that some may be more likely than others to be launching films that are more to your taste.
 
3) Make sure your screenings are in venues close to each other, unless you have a very good reason to traipse across town. The screening venues in Berlin are all over the city but there are two huge participating multiplexes next door to each other where you can stay all day.
 
4) Get up early and go and get festival tickets for the next day from the Martin Grupius Bau at the EFM (8-9am), ie be organised.
 
5) Always have a back-up plan. If a film you are watching starts badly, and is still bad in the middle, leave and go on to plan b! Which ideally will be in the cinema next door, ie be flexible.
 
6) Ask everyone what they have liked (or not liked) – the people sitting next to you, in queues etc. If you are shy you don’t even need to talk, just eavesdrop, and listen to what everyone else is talking about. The café in the MGB is also great place to pick up tips. Take the EFM shuttles between screening venues, because it will be minus eight degrees and too cold to walk, and talk to people on the journey.
 
lots of Indian soldiers in a 3 rows and one white family at the front
Viceroy's House (2017)
 
A few titles that I am looking out for are Una Mujer Fantastica, Have a Nice Day, Call Me By Your Name, Golden Exit, The Party , Almost Heaven and Manifesto.  But in ten days time I may be recommending a completely different list of films on the basis of steps five and six.
 
Whatever happens I have layers (and layers) of clothing, snacks, and spare batteries, and am looking forward to seeing some new films, connecting with international colleagues and disappearing into a bubble where, for a few days, film as both art and entertainment will hopefully offer ways for audiences to be engaged but also help us interpret what is going on in the world around us today. Watch this space!
 
Top tips: 
 
- Berlin is such a crucial market to distributors and sales agents, so meeting with new producers is low on their to-do lists. The industry has roughly three bites of the cherry to make enough money to keep afloat for another year and Berlin is the first of those outings.
 
- If you are lucky enough to meet some industry folk, make sure you ask when the end of their market is. If they are UK-based agents then pop in and show your face and arrange for a meet back in London. They'll give you much more time in London than in Berlin. 
 
- Focus on meeting potential producing partners and getting a vibe of what the market is looking like by speaking to as many people as possible. 
 
- If you're yet to make a feature, reach out to producers who have made their first or second. If you're on your first or second, reach out to those on their third or fourth. Learn from those who have recently been where you are now and have time to give you good advice.
 
- If you have the right passes, go to market screenings and watch what films are being made and being sold. You'll get to meet other buyers there and they should be quite nice to you as you're all waiting in line together to watch a film. You can learn loads from listening to buyers talking to one another about the market.