Movie Business At Berlinale, TV is the new feature film

The Berlinale is leading the rest of the world's film festivals by including television in its official schedule. In some quarters, that's a controversial decision. In others, it heralds a new golden age for film makers.
TV is staking a spot on the Berlinale's red carpet.

Whatever you do, don’t call it a TV show. It’s a drama series, or serial content, or episodic drama, or primetime storytelling. Anything but TV.

“Please note that we do not view high-end drama series as TV content since it is produced for other media such as video on demand too,” the public relations memo read. “Just for the wording,” the writer added politely.

That one sentence highlights why showing the entertainment formerly known as TV at Berlin's film festival is so controversial – and why this is happening more and more at A-list festivals around the world.

Berlin’s annual film festival first introduced TV in its official lineup in 2010. Eight years on, there is much more TV at the Berlinale, which started on Thursday and runs until next weekend.

Cannes, probably the world’s most glamorous and business-oriented film festival, opposed the lure of TV until very recently.

In 2013, organizers showed the entire series of the Jane Campion-directed series "Top of the Lake." In 2015, the Berlinale was the first A-list festival to start a special section for TV. That section, known as the Berlinale Series, has expanded again this year, to encompass seven different TV shows.

Viewers will be able to watch the first two or three episodes of each series (see picture gallery below for more on these) on the big screen, at Berlin’s historic Zoo Palast cinema. Tickets to the TV screenings cost €12 each, the same as any other film at the festival.

“It is a unique experience to see content that was meant for the small screen in a theater like the Zoo Palast,” the director of the festival, Dieter Kosslick, told Handelsblatt Global. “The viewer can be sure to see an outstanding piece of art when he watches a series that premiered at the Berlinale,” he said.

Television series have not always been so welcome at the world’s leading film festivals. After all, they’re called film festivals for a reason. Two of the world's leading festivals, Sundance and Venice, have shown TV before. But only this year did Sundance actually put television on the official schedule, with a brand new section called Indie Episodic. Venice, the oldest movie festival in the world, has been dabbling in the space where virtual reality meets TV.

But Cannes, probably the world’s most glamorous and business-oriented film festival, withstood the lure of telly until very recently. In 2017, festival director Thierry Frémaux broke his longstanding “no TV” rule and showed parts of the new "Twin Peaks" series, directed by David Lynch, and the new series of "Top of the Lake," by Ms. Campion.

Let's kick back and see what's on the box.

Clearly the Berlinale is leading the way. As Mr. Kosslick sees it, the boundaries between film and television are increasingly blurred. Actors switch easily between the two and the technology used for both is increasingly comparable, as is the quality of the output.

“Look at Tom Twyker, this year’s president of the Berlinale jury,” said Mr. Kosslick. Mr. Twyker is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning German director who just spent a year making the TV series "Babylon Berlin."

In some ways, television might actually be doing better than mainstream cinema. It is now one of the only places where we get to see seriously good, contemporary story-telling for an adult audience, according to scriptwriter Jochen Greve. He is among the founders of the German Academy for Television, which presents annual prizes to the industry. As he sees it, Hollywood is busy making no-risk blockbusters and less of everything else, including interesting mid-budget films that usually cost between $20 to $40 million.

All of which has led to what Mr. Greve calls a “crisis in storytelling” and TV has come to the rescue. “You now have this great opportunity to tell multi-faceted, long-form stories. Look at 'The Wire' or 'True Detective.' And I don’t see any antagonism,” he said. “I see it as an exchange. Because TV is doing something the movies aren't doing as often anymore.”

Additionally technology also matters - the technical differences between film and TV are no longer so great. Everything’s digital and many households now have a “big screen” in the form of a large television.

“You can no longer separate one type of media from another – everyone uses digital media,” said Marcus S. Kleiner, a professor of communications and media studies at the SRH Hochschule Berlin, a university of applied sciences. “You could actually just call the format ‘moving pictures.’ Something is changing in the way that audiences see movies and film festivals have to react to that.”

Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon also have a part to play in the fact that there is more focus on TV series at film festivals, according to Michael Lehmann, head of the Studio Hamburg Production Group, that made "Bad Banks," one of the series premiering at the Berlinale. “In the last year Netflix alone showed over 600 of their own productions; that means there is more adventurous, quality content and competition. This dynamic makes possible new productions that are so good, they can be shown at film festivals,” Mr. Lehmann argued.

There is possibly also a particularly German aspect to the Berlinale’s embrace of TV. As Mr. Greve points out, German directors and actors have always switched happily between film and television.

“There are probably only two or three German directors who work regularly in cinema,” he said. “Unlike in France or Italy, the best in the business work in TV regularly. Germany has always been this way. Most of [cult German director Werner] Fassbinder’s early films were actually made for TV,” Mr. Greve said, adding that Germany’s “moving pictures” have always been funded by public broadcasters, and therefore have a tradition of being made for the smaller screen.

So could TV possibly become even more important at the Berlinale in the future, potentially even more important than film? Not according to Mr. Kosslick. This week, he told Screen Daily, an industry publication, that there was no plan to increase the number of TV shows at the Berlinale in the future. The Berlinale will stay up to date with “disruptive developments,” he told Handelsblatt Global. “But our core content is – and will remain – feature film.”

Mr. Kleiner isn’t so sure. Germany may have pioneered the movie business in the 1920s but it has not been as relevant in the past few decades. The Berlinale’s open attitude toward TV is a sign of the times, and the blurring lines in digital media could herald a new golden age for German film makers. “Germany is making a lot of good, relevant TV." And, contrary to purist opinion, Mr. Kleiner will keep calling it TV. “To me, it’s not film, it’s still TV,” he says. “But with a difference.”


Cathrin Schaer is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]