Taking the reins at the Berlinale’s European Film Market after the departure of the long-serving Matthijs Wouter Knol, who left last year to run the European Film Academy, was never going to be easy. Throw an ongoing pandemic into the mix, which has upended traditional industry interactions and shut down international travel, and the role overseeing one of the world’s most important film events looked even more challenging.
Step forward Dennis Ruh, the fresh-faced executive who, in his role as Head of Festival Relations and Producers Liaison at national body German Films, had forged an international network of contacts and a local reputation for forward-thinking before getting hired by Berlinale top brass Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian.
Berlin Film Fest Chiefs Talk "Unprecedented" 2021 Edition, Landing Celine Sciamma's 'Petite Maman' & Streamer/Studio Absence
The festival and market will take place in an unconventional format this year due to the ongoing situation. An audience-facing event is planned for June, when the movies will be shown in cinemas, while the fest’s industry activity is running March 1-5 in a virtual format, during which buyers will also have access to the wider festival program, which is set to be unveiled next week.
The team have tried to respect the need for the big screen experience for theatrical buyers, however, and have instigated the new initiative ‘EFM Goes Global’, which will see physical screenings held in Tokyo, Melbourne, Sae Paulo and Mexico City for regional distributors.
We caught up with Ruh a few weeks out from the market to see how prospects are looking for this year, what industry can expect from his debut edition, and how he thinks the future of these types of events is going to look.
DEADLINE: Congratulations on your new role – how did it feel to step into the position amidst this ongoing situation?
DENNIS RUH: Thank you! Primarily I was and am very happy to take the position of EFM Director. It felt like a huge honour and at the same time an exciting challenge. The pandemic and its actual consequences became more relevant later. When I officially started in September, we still thought it would be possible to offer a hybrid market alongside a – more or less – regular festival. To manage the first virtual edition of the EFM ever is of course a challenge, but I am determined to accept it. At the same time, the circumstances mobilize energy and support creativity.
DEADLINE: The market is a month away now – how are registrations looking in comparison with last year?
RUH: At the moment, the numbers of Market Badges are roughly identical to those of last year. But the dynamic of online events is different from on-site happenings. As potential participants don’t need to plan travel and accommodation, the decision of participation and registration can be made much later. Registration will remain open even during the EFM.
DEADLINE: How about the number of participating film projects?
RUH: The booking of market screenings is still possible. So, it’s too early to talk about final numbers. But the number of booked market screenings looks very promising. When it comes to series, there were the same number offered from Europe, but less from the US. In general, the slates of the sales agents are packed.
DEADLINE: To what extent have you analyzed events such as the Cannes virtual marche, and other online markets, to inform your planning? And what will you be doing differently?
RUH: We have been looking closely at other industry events. But I don’t want to compare the EFM to other markets. Every market is different. The Cannes market was the first market at the very beginning of the pandemic to ever move online and I think it worked very well. Looking at the online AFM in November, the attendance and feedback has also been very positive.
The participants experienced intense and efficient meetings, exhibitors registered more or less the same amount of viewers at their online screenings, all attendants spoke of packed calendars – and all of this combined with no travel cost and time. That said, last summer I also visited the Venice Film Festival including the physical Venice Production Bridge and later MIA Market in Rome. These events showed once again that film business is a people’s business and always will be. The personal connection of actually meeting your contacts and connecting on a personal level cannot be replaced by a virtual event. But I am positive that in the future we will bring together the best from both worlds – the digital and physical.
DEADLINE: Six months ago people perhaps had more of an optimistic outlook about the potential for virtual events, when they were more of a novelty – I wonder if some apathy might be setting in now as this situation drags on. How do you keep them interesting and fresh?
RUH: I agree that due to the ongoing pandemic, online formats dominate our business activities. So we designed our program in a way to make it “digitally digestible”: We adapted the conferences to the digital environment. And we added some physical components like little yoga breaks. What changed in my opinion is that people expect more from an online event than they did in the beginning. That’s why we are focusing on offering a combination of excellent high-quality arthouse content screenings, easily accessible virtual booths as well as a conference programme that is to the point with high-class speakers.
DEADLINE: TV has been a growing part of the Berlinale and the EFM in recent years – do you expect that to continue?
RUH: Absolutely. TV and streaming platforms have become one of the vital and important storytelling mediums of our time. The streaming revolution made it possible to reach people with serialised content worldwide and gather millions around common interests. Berlinale and the EFM traditionally bring together film enthusiasts with the industry, so highlighting high quality TV drama series, inspire discussions and fuel professional exchange is a natural consequence. Berlinale Series Market & Conference is now in its seventh year and we keep pace with the times by giving our industry audience insights into current trends and opportunities to connect with creators and decision makers of the current TV content boom.
DEADLINE: One of the big things I miss from markets is socializing – are you doing anything this year to try to replicate that side of things?
RUH: You are right, that is probably the most challenging element to replace in the virtual world. At the EFM 2021, we will introduce our informal ‘Mix and Mingle’ formats which will be a jolly approach to getting together in the digital age: meet up with old and new friends, share a laughter and hang-out in a relaxed atmosphere.
DEADLINE: The differing time zones can be a challenge for participants, are you doing anything to address that?
RUH: For the conferences, the ‘Golden Hour’ became a focal point to reach our market participants in different time zones with live formats. And big parts of our conference program will be available afterwards as VOD content. Additionally, we will produce the EFM Daily, a mid-day 15 minutes round-up of the day’s programme, providing outlooks and reviews even if market participants didn’t manage to access the live event or want to get an overview about the bullet points of the day. And for the market screenings, the time difference is not obstructive.
DEADLINE: The EFM has gone online while the festival has split up into a couple of events – will the EFM be entirely held March 1-5 or is there thinking about doing any further industry events later in the year?
RUH: The summer festival is not planned as an industry event – we will then focus already on the EFM 2022 and will develop new ideas and concepts, as we cannot expect that the business will be the same as in pre-pandemic times.
DEADLINE: Many events have struggled financially during this period (as has the wider industry) – are you having to scale back costs and will this impact be felt in the coming years?
RUH: We are lucky to have the opportunity to count on the financial support of the German Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. Without the support of the program “Neustart Kultur (Restart Culture)” the EFM wouldn’t have been possible in 2021.
We also dependent on the economic welfare of the film industry and distribution business. I really hope that the sales agents will widely survive those turbulent times. Those companies are essential for bringing national films and international co-productions to the world and to enrich the variety of films available in the cinemas and on the platforms.
DEADLINE: Do you believe that online will be a greater component of markets in the future, even after this pandemic (hopefully) ends?
RUH: It will probably be a combination of both – a physical event with virtual elements. But everyone looks forward to the return of personal encounters. As mentioned, at the end, it’s a people business.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.