Interview with Beki Probst, Director of the European Film Market

In 2013, the Berlinale had another successful year as the largest audience-oriented international film festival selling 303,000 tickets. Total professional accreditations reached 19.630 including 3.694 members of the press. 404 films were featured in its public programs and 816 were seen at the European Film Market. The festival continues to expand yet over the last years the strongest growth has been experienced by the European Film Market. Beki Probst was appointed in 1988 as the Director of the Film Market for the Berlinale.  Her 25 years as director transformed the EFM into one of the three most important global film markets, and EFM is now considered by many observers to be on par with the American Film Market and Cannes. It ranks as the most important market for independent and art house productions.

Claus Mueller           Variety had the headline Big Bang Theory about the European Film Market basically stating that you are getting into big business selling top priced productions as acquired by e.g. the Weinstein Company.  Is that an expansion of the market or does it mean the market moves away for its original mission and younger days with its focus on independent  and art  house productions?

Beki Probst    Let me put it this way. We started as a smaller market, and this small market was art house oriented. Over the years when you look back after moving twice we came here [to the Martin Gropius Bau] and we set up a second location at the Marriott reflecting growing demand. Without getting into reasons for that demand, we know it was prompted by a change of the calendar of the markets.  When you enlarge you are also attracting different types of companies. Those companies are different from those we used to have in the beginning.  They are also bringing different films. I look at it as an enlargement of the market.

CM      You are getting bigger each year programming more films. The same holds true for the festival, though Dieter Kosslick always maintains that there is an end to the festival’s growth. How will you cope in the future when more companies approach you to get space?

BP       We cope with it every year. Take the Marriott, I am not a marketing chief of that hotel but I have to say the Marriott has been a very good choice for us. The problem here is that you do not move out of the Potsdamer Platz area when you enlarge. Berlin is a big city offering space further out. The main thing is to stay here. After we decided to have a second location we looked around and the most suitable venue was the Marriott, given the short distance and our shuttle. The situation at the Marriott is different from our location at the Museum [the Martin Gropius Bau]. While we are here the Museum continued with its exhibitions it also has rooms we cannot use. Even though the director of the museum gave us last year the second floor which we use for the American independents.  Still the Marriott is very flexible. Even for 2014 they are planning to have more suites for us.

CM      Thus you see no problems with the expansion since space will be available?

BP       But when we talk about the market screening it is another story. We have also enlarged and are now present with our screenings at different festival, hotel and museum locations but we need to expand further. We have doubled the number of shuttles to ten to facilitate access.  But we do not have crystal ball and do not know how the future looks like.  We are in a financial crisis and what are going to be the effects long or short terms?

CM      Let me ask you a question tied to it.  There was an article about the American Film Market written by one of their participants suggesting that according to some data the European Film Market is now bigger than AFM. Is that correct?

BP       I really can’t say and we would need data. But the American Film Market is only a market. We are part of the Berlin Film Festival and we are getting a lot of screenings and films from the different festival sections.

CM      A follow up question. The same writer maintains that the EFM is the most expensive market to attend. Correct?

BP      Not really. We have a complete tableau of price comparisons and we are not the most expensive. I am going to Cannes and AFM and I know the hotel prices. The screening prices may be different. Let me tell you why.  When you are here you may have an office at the Ritz Carlton or at the Hyatt or the Maritime, which means outside of our two locations.  Well as distinct from the AFM these people [at those hotels] can get accredited at the EFM and can arrange for screenings. We give them the possibility of being listed in the catalog but they have to pay more because they take advantage of the infrastructure of the EFM.

CM      Is the European Film Market self-sustaining? Do you generate sufficient income through the market so there is no need for subsidies from the festival at large or do you subsidize it  [generate income for the festival]

BP       You really can’t say that. A market like ours really has to keep it up. We have to invest constantly and these investments are rather high given the size of the market. Our rent here [at the Walter Gropius] is very high, we have to support the technical side, all that digitization, and last but not least you have the website which we have to support requiring [more funds] next year since things are changing very quickly and we have to keep pace with it.

CM      Has the shift to digital media and uses become a problem for the market?

BP       Of course. Take the screening problem.  In the past we programmed 35 mm and may be some 16mm films. Today we are facing multiple digital formats such as blue ray, HD DVD, digicam, and so on we need to accommodate

CM      Apart from the technology issues, what do you detect in terms of new themes?

BP       What you can see here and in general is that films today reflect the preoccupation of people with the world they are living in wars, etc. On the other hand you have the video games [impacting people and the productions]

CM      If you look at the audience served by the market, has there been a change in the composition with respect to buyers, sellers and the other groups with journalists etc?

BP       Bit difficult to say since there is a constant change of companies attending. You certainly have an influx of people who are interested and follow the new distribution modes, DVD, internet etc to see what can be programmed and acquire what they need.

CM      Thus the coming into being of new platforms generates more demands?

BP       Correct

CM      In that context do you observe an increase in pre-sales compared to prior years?

BP       Berlin has been very much about pre-sales specifically over the last years. That is logical since we are in February and thus the first film market. Lots of projects are in pre-production, production or post-production and you certainly take advantage of the large number of people here to show what is in the pipe line.

CM      Apart from the important link of EFM to the festival are there any other characteristics of EFM that makes it so attractive>

BP       Difficult to answer. But Berlin is most attractive, it has become a hype, if you talk to companies, American or otherwise, they love the ambiance of Berlin. and lastly we are the first market of the year and you want to be part of it..

CM      What is also attractive about EFM are the social face to face interactions of people as distinct from markets which rely more on technologies for communication .

BP      Certainly; why go to a market if the new technologies do not require your presence.  But the new technologies do not make up for personal relations and interactions. I may be old fashioned but I strongly believe in personal contacts and human relations

CM      You are right.  Uses of the so-called social media have dramatically reduced personal interactions, thus there is a systemic communications problem. In addition we observe in other areas a steady increase in visual media consumption which generates more business for the market.  Do you plan any changes for the 2014 market?

BP         Each year we do a survey at the end of the market. The results are very useful including the criticism since they lead to improvements, no one is perfect. Once we have collected the necessary data we will decide on any changes and develop strategies for the next market.

CM.     Thank you for your reflections.

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