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European Film Market, Interview with Director Beki Probst

Berlinale: European Film Market, Interview with Director Beki Probst.

In 1988 Beki Probst was appointed Director of the Film Fair for the Berlinale which she then renamed European Film Market. Her prior experience includes work for the Locarno Film Festival and representation of the Berlinale in Turkey and Greece. Beki Probst was born in Istanbul and studied law and journalism.

Her twenty year direction resulted in the constant expansion of the European Film Market and its transformation into one the three most important global film markets, considered by many observers now to be on par with the American Film Market and Cannes. In 2008 about 6300 professionals were accredited at the market to review the latest projects and the 700 films provided by 408 companies from 55 countries of which 522 were market premieres. In spite of the economic crisis the number of buyers equaled those attending the 2008 EFM. Among the new features of the market were the second market venue the EFM Marriott Offices and stands; the EFM Industry Debates; and prompted by the prominence of documentaries, several ‘Meet the Docs’ seminars run with the European Documentary Network.

Overall the 2009 European Film Market was successful with “sales exceeding expectations” as Beki Probst notes. Variety reported that “the right projects were still generating healthy interests from buyers”.

Claus Mueller: Looking at 20 years of running the European Film Market what were the biggest problems you encountered?
Beki Probst: Well I do not like moving and I had to move three times. Because I get used to a place like many others, thus I get nostalgic about it like [I am about] the CineCenter [for eleven years through 2000 the venue for the European Film Market]. Once I move I feel better but the idea of moving is always very traumatizing.
CM: The logistics of it?
BP: Yes but also every time you move and you change people habits it is a challenge because people are a little bit like me they like to be in their set ways. I hope I never have to move again.
CM: You never know the market is expanding constantly. Well you have been directing the market for twenty years. Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?
BP: This is also a difficult question. l I have been doing things differently all the time as prompted by the moves [of the market] you had to adapt to a new place, size, setting…
CM: Well, what I mean when you think back did you miss a great chance of doing something or did you make a decision you felt sorry about afterwards?
BP: It would be very presumptuous to say no to that question.
CM: Over the last twenty years there have been tremendous changes in the film industry. Which changes has affected you most in the market?
PB: Well you know. Several changes affected us. You had to deal the new technologies, this year you have also to deal with a certain economic situation. A market is what the market reflects.
CM: Thus the context of the industry?
BP: Yes all those phenomena are also reflected in the films.
CM: When we talk about the context, there has been a multiplication of film festivals, currently estimated about 3500 worldwide followed by a growth in the film markets. In Asia we have Pusan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, to name but the most important and in December 2008 the Dubai Film Market premiered. Has this increase in film markets affected your work forcing you for example to become more regional and less international?
BP: No. During the film festival you have always people coming to see you from different parts of the world stating that we have festival here and a festival there and we would like to have a market. Everyone has that dream of a market since they believe if they have a market they can attract the [film] industry. On the other hand all those markets are not realistic because if you take a serious company that company wants to do serious business. [The executives of] that company have to be in the office sometimes and they cannot jump from one film market to the next. I am against that proliferation of all those film markets because people do not have the time or the money to be all over. When we were smaller the American Film Market was saying there are only two markets Cannes and the American Film Market. They never counted with the European Film Market to become so important.
CM: Let me go to the next question. I spent one week at the Dubai Film Festival and the just established new Film Market. The market is highly technological [or electronically automated]. There were no stands for sales companies, those participating did not have to pay a fee and many people are invited guests. I wonder, at a film market what is the importance of the personal contact between a buyer and a seller? In Dubai films would be watched on a screen through the Cinetech system and the buyer would be interacting electronically with the seller.
PB: Look, I may sound old fashioned. In that respect one of the important roles of the market is to bring people together. If your intention is to watch a film there is no need to go to Dubai, you can get a screener and watch it at home. A market has different functions. It is a place where you can see what has been produced and ascertain what will be produced. But aside all the meetings you have, it serves to meet people who are looking for funding, people who have new projects, thus a market is a meeting and networking place.
CM: To get back to the European Film market this year. I have been attending it for several years and it seems that there are fewer people walking the corridors during the first days. One interpretation offered is that there has been less business transacted and a different one is offered for example by Oliver Mahrdt [German film sales representative in the U.S.A] who suggests it is better to have fewer people here since those who came are more serious and have more authority to sign contracts.
BP: Of course there is no point for a company to show up with ten people, what is important is to have the real people here. This is also one consequence of the new economic situation which forces companies to engage in damage control to reduce costs thus booking fewer hotel rooms, having less meals etc. All that is very realistic today.
CM: Has this change affected the overall volume of transactions?
BP: Not at all. As a matter of fact sales exceeded expectations.
CM: In the US it may be different with a direct impact of the economic crisis. Television stations have less advertising funding to acquire films and the large no-theatrical market seems to be collapsing. In Western Europe we will be observing rather low economic growth rates if at all. How will this affect the market eventually?
BP: You must not forget that the market is with a festival which provides the context as distinct from a standalone market such as the American Film Market. When you have problems they will affect all of us but I think that there is positive side. People are becoming more selective on the whole, this means, I hope, that fewer and better films will be made.
CM: This was also emphasized by some panelist at the co-production market… projects must score eight out of ten rather than six out of ten to generate investment.
BP: Exactly as I have always argued quality rather than quantity. There is not much use for the mass of films which will never have a career [entering distribution].
CM: There is research by a former Miramax executive which shows that less than 0.1 percent of the 8000 Film submitted to Sundance in 2008 succeeded at the box office. From the panels here I gather that insofar as funding and distribution are concerned high end star studded film ventures have a chance of success as do low budget quality films serving the art house market. The middle field seems to be falling out. What is your view?
BP: I think it is an appropriate analysis because star studded films will always find an audience even if today the life span of films is getting much shorter since people run to see it during the first weekend of release and because there are so many films available in the pipeline. On the other hand you have those medium films. The question is what does those frequently independent films give to the public? When I buy a cinema ticket what do I get? That is the problem; some films are successful without big stars since they touched people’s emotions. Such films will survive.
CM: Speaking of trends in themes and genres is there anything which sticks out this year?
BP: Basically, l what we are showing in the market reflects what you see in the festival.
CM: If a buyer has the option of going either to Cannes, the American Film Market, or the European Film Market, what would be your arguments for the choice of the European Film Market?
BP: I will not use any arguments because people are grown up.
CM: Let assume you program the market for another twenty years… what is your vision for the market?
BP: I am not a magician. What I hope for the market is that we will always be able to adapt
the market and our structures to the needs of the film industry

CM: Thank you

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent


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