Screen wars

Indie picture palaces are a dying breed the world over... except in Berlin, home to nearly 60 small arthouse and neighbourhood venues. But the fight for survival is a competition of Darwinian brutality.

Tucked away in the second Hinterhof of a disused factory, the Eizeit Cinema in Kreuzberg is 28 years old and seats a maximum of 142 people in two screening rooms.
Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

Indie picture palaces are a dying breed the world over… except in Berlin, home to nearly 60 small arthouse and neighbourhood venues. But the fight for survival is a competition of Darwinian brutality.

This year, for the first time, the Berlinale is taking time out from its Potsdamer Platz Palast to go local. With one premiere a night at independent venues across the city, 10 of Berlin’s smaller cinemas will be opening their doors to some of the biggest shots in the industry. “It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ to the cinemas,” says festival director Dieter Kosslick. “These are valuable sites of culture, communication and creativity. And we must do our best to ensure they’re kept alive.”

With about 60 arthouse cinemas – ranging from reputed historical venues to pocket-Kinos, all packed with experimental, highbrow and indie treats – Berlin’s lively film landscape is comparable only to that of Paris, Europe’s cinephile mecca. “I think it’s a great idea,” beams Christian Bräuer, managing director of the Yorck cinema group, which owns a dozen neighbourhood cinemas. “And it’s a sign that the industry acknowledges its dependence on Berlin’s arthouse venues.” Three of the Berlinale’s 10 venues – Capitol Dahlem, Neues Off in Neukölln and the Odeon in Schöneberg – belong to Yorck.

But not everyone shares his excitement. Suzan Beerman of Eiszeit, a small Kreuzberg theatre, shuffles in her chair and frowns. “It’s a nice gesture, I suppose,” she says unconvincingly, and shuffles again. “But I worry that the more exposure these niche films get elsewhere, the less likely people are to watch them at Eiszeit.” Tucked away in the second Hinterhof of a disused factory, the cinema is 28 years old and seats a maximum of 142 people in two screening rooms. Beerman is acclaimed for her arthouse programming, but the “flying red carpet” set in motion by the Berlinale is headed for better-known, “historical” venues.

Beerman’s complaint represents more than just frustration at being left out: it hints at a quiet battle being fought in Berlin’s arthouse scene. In many cities, the prevalence and popularity of multiplexes has made independent picture houses a dying breed. Not in Berlin. At last count (in 2008), 70 percent of tickets sold here were at cinemas with one to three screens. Good news for the miniplexes, then? Not necessarily. Berlin’s indies are so abundant that they’re treading on each other’s toes. And while the venues compete to woo the crowds, the politics of distribution tends to play into the hands of bigger capacity Kinos. When Germany’s most famous indie director Fatih Akin released the keenly-awaited Soul Kitchen in Berlin at Christmas time, there were only fourteen reels to go around. The cinemas with fewer screens were trampled in the stampede.

The arthouse chain

So how do Berlin’s independent cinemas stake their claim in a saturated market? One approach is safety in numbers. This is exemplified by Yorck – since the 1970s, the group has been acquiring rundown old cinemas and restoring them to their former splendour. It currently presides over 14 venues, including two outdoor ones and several of the city’s best-known Kinos: the Delphi Palast, Babylon Kreuzberg and Kino International.

Technically speaking, Yorck is a chain owned by a Dresden-based company – a fact which necessarily hoists a question mark over the ‘independent’ branding. But according to Bräuer, “each cinema retains its unique aesthetic and charm, and its anchoring im Kiez”. With so many cinemas, the Yorck group has become a popular port of call for distributors. The management allots a programme to each site that suits its clientele, but allows for inter-venue trading if it appears certain films might fare better elsewhere. Customers are gently persuaded to stay in the loop with loyalty cards.

A venue for everything

“I’m just not interested in talking about it,” barks the voice on the phone. Meet Timothy Grossman. Few people on Berlin’s cinema circuit have ruffled as many feathers as the owner of the Babylon-Mitte. His is the only movie theatre in the city to receive regular funding from the state government (as of January, this totalled some €350,000 a year). Yet since he took over the Babylon in 2005, Grossman has been subject to seething criticism from his competitors, local unions and Die Linke. They say his staff is poorly paid and his programme is too commercial to merit large pots of public money.

But Grossman stumps his critics on one front: the Babylon’s schedule tops almost all others when it comes to breadth and originality. Last year, an average of 80 titles were screened each month: foreign films, short films, cult films, documentaries, silent films… you name it, Babylon’s shown it. And Grossman’s a savvy businessman to boot. One of his most original and successful ideas has been to outsource the programming, turning this beautiful former theatre, an example of the 1920s “Neues Bauen” architectural movement, into a venue for bookers. Here, aspirant film curators with a feasible idea for a festival, series or retrospective can turn their concept into reality.

It’s a clever approach in a city bursting with enterprising minds and DIY creativity. Moviegoers get to see an eclectic selection of independent film festivals curated by people who really care about what they’re doing. And, in theory at least, it’s a win-win situation for the Babylon: the collaborations enhance the venue’s line-up and profile whilst keeping programming and marketing expenses (most of which are covered by the event organisers themselves) down to a minimum.

Serving the niches

While the Babylon banks on a combination of form,content and customers, several arthouses have opted instead to target more specialised crowds. With 137 seats, Schöneberg’s Xenon is one of the city’s smallest cinemas, but its primary address for gay and lesbian films. Wedding’s Alhambra caters to its Kiez by maintaining a high turnover of Turkish films. Fsk, in Kreuzberg’s SO36 district, is known for the quality of its OV arthouse programming, and to English-speakers for hosting the Britspotting festival. Last year, it also also played host to the Poles; the POLSKA film festival returns in April.

Fsk has a good eye for business as well as engaging cinema; by exploiting both qualities, it’s turned the acquisition tussle to its own advantage. “We were fed up with rarely getting hold of the films we liked, or considered important,” says Barbara Suhren. “We’d go to festivals and spend so much time and energy trying to persuade distributors to rent us copies for just four or five days. So we started buying a small selection instead, and lending them on the Berlin market.”

Spurred on by a growing national demand for original language films, Suhren and her colleagues have tapped into steady Swiss supplies of French works subtitled in German. Peripher, the cinema’s distribution arm, is modestly stocked, but works with popular venues like the Hackesche Höfe Filmtheater and Filmkunst 66.

Digitalisation: adapt or die?

The “Berlinale Goes Kiez” outreach programme comes at a pivotal point in the ever-evolving story of cinema – and perhaps even constitutes a sort of strategic sweet talk. Since its inception, moving image technology has proved itself to be quite the chameleon, and movie theatres have had no choice but to cater to its whims.

In the 1930s, the move from silent to sound wiped out swathes of smaller cinemas that couldn’t sustain the cost of conversion. The 1950s saw various wide-screen and multi-projector fads: the likes of early 3D and Cinerama. Now the democratisation of film via digital technology is, paradoxically, forcing an extortionate remodelling of cinemas. So far, Yorck’s Kino International is the only ’independent’ venue in Berlin to have undergone complete digitalisation – not a big surprise, given the fact that the process costs more than €70,000 per screen. While the CinemaxXes of this world ride the storm, the independents fear the apocalypse is nigh. “Without help from the industry or the state, the number of cinemas in Germany will probably be halved by 2020,” says Bräuer of Yorck cinema group. Until now, any effort on the part of the government and the unions to deliver an aid package has failed.

Ask any independent Kino owner in Berlin what the future holds and they’ll respond with a shrug. “Perhaps we’re headed for a new New Wave,” Barbara Suhren says with a wry smile. “I seriously doubt it, but you just never know.” Given the many historical shifts cinema has endured, any forecast – bright or bleak – could be correct. Yet, in defiance of common perception about the effects of online viewing, Berliners continue to consume cinema in its natural habitat, the movie theatre. In 2009, ticket sales were up by 6.9 percent from the previous year. The competition between independent venues is tough, but away from the controlling hand of large studios and distributors, the city’s smaller cinemas are still delivering challenging and innovative programmes to their clientele.

With the Competition (for the heavy hitters), the Forum (for radical and experimental cinema), two youth sections and hosts of spin- off events, the Berlinale is keenly aware of the scope of both its medium and its audience. The “Berlinale Goes Kiez” initiative might, as Suzan Beerman suspects, hint at tokenism, but maybe we should share in Christian Braüer’s enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s a gesture that will help to share the spoils of the distribution battle and introduce new viewers to smaller venues. And, for 10 days at least, those viewers might even be amongst the biggest names in Hollywood.