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Berlinale Bloggers 2018
Is the cinema-versus-TV debate still relevant?

Bad Banks (2017)
Bad Banks (2017) | © Ricardo Vaz Palma

In the past couple of years there has been an ongoing debate about whether the status of cinema has been hijacked by TV series. In my opinion this is framing the question the wrong way.

By Yun-hua Chen

Here’s a challenge for you to try at this year’s Berlinale. Try to find someone who has never watched a single episode of either Game of Thrones, Black Mirror or The Handmaid’s Tale. As of now, I haven’t had any success. Series like the one named above have increased in scale and popularity over the last decade while approximating cinematic quality in terms of the look. We are entering an era in which “subscribers” are more important consumers to the film industry than “film-goers”, media content is consumed on a screen at home much more than on a theatre screen, and technology companies get deeper and deeper into the film industry which they are starting to redefine with the help of their deep pockets. This was clearly apparent in the dispute between Cannes Film Festival and Netflix in 2017 over Netflix-produced and straight-to-streaming Okja (2017) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), which took the issue to the next level.

Both films were made available worldwide on streaming services directly without any theatrical release in France, hence prompting fierce opposition from the Federation of French Cinema and resulted in Cannes’ new rule of banning films that are not theatrically released from competing from the Palme d’Or. At the core of this conflict lies the fundamental question of what is a film, and as a consequence, what is a film festival? This year’s Berlinale seems like a good place and time to catch up with this debate and think deeply about these issues.

With the Berlinale Series (previously named Berlinale Special Series), the 68-year-old film festival has been embracing a curated selection of exceptional serial formats in movie theaters since 2015. This selection has previously included Better Call Saul (2015 - ), The Night Manager (2016 – 2018) and 4 Blocks (2017 - ). This year we see Christian Schwochow’s Bad Banks (2017 - ), Dan Futterman’s The Looming Tower (2018 - ), and Keren Margalit’s Sleeping Bears (2018 - ) among others. Bad Banks, for example, can be watched side by side with Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth (2018) in Panorama, a documentary spanning 25 years about the collective obsession with wealth and fame in which Lauren Greenfield also interviewed the German ex-hedge fund manager Florian Homm who was jailed for fraud during the 2007 financial crisis. Each with their respective lengths and formats, Schwochow's post-financial crisis view on the banking industry from a female perspective could mirror the film world of Generation wealth in a very inspiring way. Also, Panorama is presenting the international premiere of two stand-alone episodes of the Swiss TV miniseries Ondes de choc (Shock Waves), directed by Lionel Baier and Ursula Meier respectively, both of which explore the aftermath of crime in a subtle and cinematic manner.

The increasing importance of the TV industry in the film circuit can also be seen in Berlinale’s choice of jury president this year, Tom Tykwer. Despite having established his status with the ground-breaking Run Lola Run (1998), Tom Tykwer has been mainly valued as a TV director nowadays after the success of Babylon Berlin (2017). As a matter of fact, there have been several renowned filmmakers going into TV production, such as Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), Nicolas Winding Refn (Too Old To Die Young), the Coen brothers (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), and Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope). Even Palm d’Or winner Michael Haneke is joining the fad. He recently announced as his next project a 10-part TV series called Kelvin’s Book, an English language dystopian drama set in the near future – much more ambitious in length than his earlier Austrian TV productions such as Lemminge (1979) and Das Schloß (1997). In his own words, “After 10 TV movies and 12 films, I wanted to tell a longer story for once.”

So what we see is less and less a fierce competition between TV and film worlds, but rather the blurring of the line between them. This, by the way, is an international phenomenon. In the Chinese media landscape we can see several merging, fluid dynamics, as well as some duplication between TV series and movies. More than 25 years after Zhang Yimou’s Golden Bear-winning Red Sorghum (红高粱, 1988), this eponymous novel of Mo Yan has been put on the TV screen and re-interpreted by the famous film actress Zhou Xun (周迅) who returns to the TV production for the first time after an entire decade. The TV director Huatao Teng (滕华涛) successfully entered the arena of commercial film production with the box office success of the romantic comedy Love is Not Blind (失恋33天, 2011). The film actor Chen Kun (陈坤), on the other hand, returned to TV series in 2017 after dedicating himself entirely to cinema for 8 years. Meanwhile, the franchise of Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms (三生三世十里桃花) has been put on both the small and the big screen within 2017.

Whether we look at Berlinale, Hollywood or the Chinese film market, the exchange between and gradual merging of TV and film industries in terms of cast, crew, investment, and audiences is bound to continue, which forces us to find new answers to the question: What is a film?