How Movie Stars Made the Berlin Film Festival as Buzzy as Sundance

The Berlin Film Festival has returned to its first fully in person edition since 2020. But this year, the Berlinale has come back with a vengeance, and added something that it wasn’t especially known for in its pre-pandemic days: star power.

Indeed, it’s been hard not to bump into a famous person in the German city — almost giving this previously mostly auteur driven gathering a vibe that more closely resembles the latest versions of Sundance or Toronto.

Artistic director Carlo Chatrian told Variety Sunday that A-list names help raise awareness for the festival’s core mission – to celebrate movies and encourage audiences to return to theaters.

“It is important because it is a way for us to support cinema culture. So these people come here to walk the red carpet, sure, but also to show their films in theaters,” he said, adding that movie theaters in Germany, as elsewhere, have yet to fully recover from the pandemic. “Part of our project is to use the festival as a bridge for the audience to attend the theaters again, which is something that we are all concerned about in Europe. So, in that respect for us it was very important to have these big names here because they are like billboards that people look at, and then enter the theaters.”

Jury president Kristen Stewart has brought the paparazzi to Berlin, and the Chanel dress that she wore to opening night became the talk of Twitter. Sean Penn made waves with “Superpower,” the documentary about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Oscar-winning actor even managed to coax Zelenskyy to appear via satellite to greet festival goers as Berlin launched on Thursday.

Anne Hathaway posted the gown and Bulgari jewels she wore to the opening night premiere of “She Came to Me” to her Instagram account. “Danke Berlinale,” she wrote before her 27 million Instagram followers. 

On Saturday, photographers raced to get shots of Sydney Sweeney — the “it” star of “Euphoria” — at a press conference for “Reality,” about NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, and Adrien Brody and Jesse Eisenberg were in Berlin for a drama about toxic masculinity, “Manodrome.” 

And as the festival reaches its midway point, competing with BAFTA weekend, the star power isn’t letting up. Sunday saw Matt Damon and Bono in town for “Kiss the Future,” and in the coming days Helen Mirren will arrive for “Golda,” Cate Blanchett for “Tár” and Steve Spielberg for “The Fabelmans,” as well as to receive an Honory Golden Bear.  

The new momentum for Berlin has been noticed by key industry figures. John Sloss, the founder of Cinetic Media, marveled at this year’s strong lineup. Nick Shumaker, a producer and financier who runs Anonymous Content’s AC Independent and is a former talent agent, said: “This year, with Carlo, there are more star-driven films and the quality has accelerated, and it’s reflected in dealmaking.”

The rush to book stars has become a necessity for top-tier film festivals particularly in Europe. These days, Cannes and Venice are in an arms race to woo Hollywood studios to book the latest vehicles with Tom Cruise or Harry Styles. And the reason isn’t that complicated: As budgets shrink throughout the film world, industry accountants are scrutinizing every expense when it comes to travel.

And so, one way to prove that your festival is still a must-attend event is to grab headlines and create buzz. But one way Berlin is different is that it’s more political than its peer festivals. For example, Stewart took a break with her jury duties to join a WOMAN LIFE FREEDOM protest to stand up against human rights violations in Iran. 

“It definitely feels like it’s a return to the Berlinale [of the pre-pandemic era],” said Scott Shooman, IFC Films’ head of acquisitions, who helped bring “Blackberry” to the festival. 

“It’s a great, receptive film community, so it’s a lovely place to launch a movie.”

And, as Chatrian observed, the glamour never hurts. “It’s essential. It’s also a pleasure to party.” That’s one thing Berlin has always been known for. 

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this story.

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