Berlin Blues: How Can The Berlin Film Festival Be Revitalized?

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Martin Scorsese was at the Berlinale this week for the first time in a decade. His presence to collect an honorary Golden Bear was a reminder of the festival’s glories of yesteryear.

In decades past, Scorsese touched down in Berlin with major works such as Raging Bull (1981), Cape Fear (1992); Gangs of New York (2003 ), Shine a Light (2008) and Shutter Island (2010). It feels a long time since the event — traditionally one of the world’s great cinema showcases — has attracted such movies. In recent years the studio splashes have dried up.

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So have memorable movies from A-list arthouse filmmakers. Scorsese this week sang the praises of the event for the encouragement it had given him as an emerging filmmaker. Citing Brian de Palma’s Silver Bear win for his second film Greetings in 1969, Scorsese said the prize had marked a turning point for unknown, independent American directors such as himself, de Palma, Jim McBride and Phil Kaufman.

“It gave us stature, in the sense that the studios started to take us seriously,” he told the audience.

Established big hitters in competition that same year included Satyajit Ray (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne), Carlo Saura (Honeycomb), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Love Is Colder Than Death), Elio Petri (A Quiet Place In The Country), John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) John-Luc Godard (Joy Of Learning), and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Godard, Marco Bellocchio and Carlo Lizzani with anthology film Love and Anger.

Fifty-four years on, industry professionals are questioning whether the Berlinale still has the power to draw the biggest names. This year’s lineup includes multiple well-received movies, some happy discoveries and it has been a starrier affair than the last few, but Cannes and Venice now seem to exist in a different stratosphere.

The festival wraps its 74th edition tomorrow and with Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek bowing out after six years at the helm, the industry is hoping incoming Director Tricia Tuttle, the former head of the BFI London Film Festival, will bring some needed pop to the selection.

Programming Woes

The festival has a devoted public fan-base. It remains one of the world’s best attended, drawing in around half a million admissions every year.

Chatrian himself has a loyal following among hardcore arthouse fans, but sales and distribution professionals have been less impressed, saying the selection has veered too far from the market and the types of indie films that stand a chance in cinemas.

“We need the bigger titles. Cinema is also about entertainment. If the festival becomes purely an arthouse criticism show that doesn’t help the market,” said one well known international sales agent, with a mix of arthouse and mainstream movies on their slate.

“You did hear people say, ‘Carlo needs to remember he’s in Berlin and not Locarno’,” one leading European publicist told Deadline, referring to Chatrian’s previous role as Artistic Director of Locarno Film Festival, known for its arthouse selection and openness to more avant-garde fare.

There are expectations that Tuttle will restructure parts of the program with a big question mark hanging over the Encounters sidebar introduced by Chatrian in 2020. Loosely Berlin’s answer to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard or Venice’s Horizons, few in the business – on either the indie arthouse or commercial sides – think it works as a place to showcase a film.

U.S. execs focused on packaging are mixed on the standing of festival’s European Film Market (EFM). Some point to it as a good mid-point market between the AFM and Cannes, regardless of the festival line-up.

“The AFM kind of closes things for us, then you have the holidays and January to settle-up. EFM is at a nice time because you have movies going into production in the spring and while we don’t necessarily rely on pre-sales, we like to hedge our bets. Berlin is a good mid-point for us,” said one exec.

But another bemoaned the lack of studio movies in the lineup, which in turn disincentivizes the major studio heads from attending the festival and engaging with the market. Execs are constantly thinking about potential tweaks to the film calendar and this respected veteran posited that the EFM and Berlin would benefit from some kind of festival and/or market programming tie-up with Sundance, which takes place just weeks before.

For his part, Chatrian suggests the Berlinale’s programming has been impacted by the changing release calendar in the wake of the pandemic, in which studios favor slots later-on in the year in sync with awards season.

“It’s no secret that the fall is becoming the place where bigger films are premiered,” he told Deadline in the lead up to this year’s edition.

One long-time festival insider suggested the shift of the Academy Awards ceremony from end-March to end-February in 2004, had a long lasting impact because it shortened the gap between the two events, with the Berlinale traditionally taking place from around February 12 to 14.

“It was easier to secure stars because there would still be a few weeks to go before the ceremony and it made sense for them to walk the red carpet but now, we’re too close. They’re in the final days of their campaign. There has to be a very good reason for them to make the trip,” they said.

They added that there seemed to be zero interest within the festival organization to shift the dates back to the June/July period of the event’s early years.


Beyond the selection, Chatrian and Rissenbeek’s co-stewardship has come under scrutiny in recent weeks amid charges of weak management over how they dealt with the backlash against opening night invites to members of Germany’s far-right AfD party as well as their response to the Israel-Gaza Crisis. Veteran German filmmaker Andreas Dresen took to the pair’s defence during the presser for his Competition title From Hilde, With Love (a film that would grace any edition) saying the build-up must have been a “nightmare” for the duo, which is true.

The festival has also come in for criticism from the Black German Filmmakers Association (the Schwarze Filmschaffende) for its programming of three films that contained anti-Black sentiments or stereotypes in the 2023 line-up. A member of the group claimed on a panel this year that the festival’s current management team had been unresponsive to requests for dialogue. Deadline has contacted the festival for comment.

The speaker went on to reveal that the org had already been in contact with Tuttle in the hope of having more input in the festival in the future.

Talking to Deadline about her and Chatrian’s track-record, Rissenbeek said the Covid-19 pandemic had thrown a spanner in the works.

“There was no continuity. We couldn’t evaluate our previous festival when we came to do the next one because of the pandemic,” she said.

“That made it a very different job from the one we had expected when we came on board. It’s not easy to know how it would have been without a pandemic, but it would have been completely different that’s for sure,” she added.

A fresh post-pandemic challenge has been dealing with a gaping budget deficit amid rising costs as the German Ministry of Culture discontinued extra pandemic funding that had topped up its annual support of €10.5M ($11.3M).

The cost-cutting decision last summer to axe the Perspektive Deutsches Kino (PDK) sidebar, focused on emerging German filmmakers, and the Berlinale Series TV strand has not gone down well.

Chatrian told Deadline he had been on a mission to whittle down the number of films in selection since his first year as part of his remit.

“It’s impossible to promote 400 films at the same time, or even 300 in this day and age,” he said. “We have 237 films this year, including the retrospective, against 281 last year. We started with around 400 films and every year we reduced a little bit.”

He suggested that the axing of the two sidebars had not had a huge impact with TV series and German films playing in other parts of the festival.

But this view does not chime with local TV execs who say the number of TV professionals making the trip to Berlin has dropped significantly.

“It’s a false economy. They saved on the costs of screenings but lost the income from registrations and their spend while they’re here,” said an exec from a top German TV sales and production company.

She said the TV biz conference program run within the EFM’s Berlinale Series Market was not enough of a lure: “They need the screenings.”

Local TV professionals are already lobbying for Berlinale Series to be brought back although some fear the momentum has been lost and that it will be hard for the festival to re-establish itself as a go-to TV event, with execs heading to London Screenings or Series Mania in Lille instead.

The EFM will also be under new management next year following a decision not to renew the contract of current director Dennis Ruh. His replacement has yet to be announced.

Ruh also had to navigate the pandemic, laying on a virtual edition in 2021 and a hybrid one in 2022.

According to EFM figures, this edition attracted a record 12,000 participants but closer scrutiny of the numbers cited in the press release reveals that buyer attendance dipped and there was a 14% drop in the number of films and series screening in the market.

Some attendees have also expressed disappointment in the EFM’s conference program this year, saying it lacked big name speakers and punch.


In the backdrop, many film and TV professionals are sympathetic to departing co-heads Chatrian and Rissenbeek and the challenges they faced, even if they think a change of guard will be good for the festival.

The Berlinale is seen as minefield in terms of its internal and external politics (a number of filmmakers this year lamented the focus on politics at press conferences) and the combination of Chatrian and Rissenbeek was not seen as an easy fit with rumours of them vying for equal billing and exposure.

The set-up of their predecessor Dieter Kosslick, in which his right-hand man Johannes Wachs worked behind the scenes making things happen, is also held up as a better management structure.

“Tricia Tuttle probably has her own people but if I were her, I would be on the phone to Johannes Wachs. You have to know people and the politics and then you have the Ministry of Culture on your back, and they’re terrible,” one well known German film veteran said.

“Claudia Roth (the German Culture Minister) is less interested in cinema – she likes carnivals, cabaret and music,” he claimed. “And the way they chopped Carlo off was just cheap”, he added, referring to the ministry’s handling of his exit which sparked a petition signed by 300 film professionals including Scorsese.

This exec suggested that Tuttle’s status as an outsider might work in her favor.

“It’s good that it’s not somebody from the German-speaking realm, and rather the English-speaking world. That was the challenge for Mariette coming from [export agency] German Films. People here already had expectations and prejudices and that didn’t help,” he said.

He added that Tuttle’s American roots – even if she has lived in the UK for much of her adult life – also make her a fitting choice given the fact the Berlinale was the brainchild of a U.S. officer stationed in Berlin with the Allied High Commission for Germany in 1950, who floated the idea and then secured U.S. backing for the first editions.

“The Berlinale was an American invention aimed at bringing back some light to the city as it rebuilt after the war,” he said.

But in a sign of just how challenging the position will be, and how divergent views are on the recipe for success, there are plenty of industry who believe it is essential for the Berlin boss to speak German. It was a sticking point for many when it came to Chatrian. “How many A-list festivals are run by people who can’t speak the local language?” one distribution vet mused.

As the 74th edition winds down, there are already growing expectations and requests piling up for Tuttle, who attended this year’s event on the down-low. The incoming director will have her work cut out as she prepares her inaugural festival, which will be a milestone edition, the Berlinale’s 75th.

Zac Ntim contributed to this article

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