Beki Probst is considered the grande dame of the film world. Under her direction, the European Film Market (EFM) has developed into one of the largest and most important trade fairs for Cinema on the international scene. Beki Probst was born in Istanbul, where she first worked as a journalist after completing her studies in law and journalism. In 1960, Probst moved to Switzerland, where she became the general manager of the Probst-Kinobetriebe, known today as Quinnie Cinemas. From 1981 to 1988, Beki Probst served as the Berlin International Film Festival’s official delegate for Turkey and Greece. Up until 1995, she also served as a member of the selection committee for the Locarno Film Festival. From 1988 to 2014, Beki Probst was the director of the Berlinale’s European Film Market (EFM) – Probst rebranded the former “film fair” as the European Film Market and subsequently transformed the event into one of the most significant industry meet-ups for the international film business. In addition, from 1988 to 1996, Beki Probst was artistic director of the Geneva-based festival “Stars de Demain”. She has served as a jury member on multiple occasions at international film festivals, including appearances in Toronto, Jerusalem and San Sebastián. In 1992, Beki Probst was decorated “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Ministry of Culture.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at the 2018 Sarajevo Film Festival.
The role you played in the creation of the European Film Market is undeniable and unprecedented. Can you talk about it from your point of view?
Beki Probst: They hired me to take over that Market. When I started, we were still on the West part of Berlin and I thought: “OK. First, I have to see what is a market,” because I didn’t have any experience in markets as I was running cinemas in Switzerland. I made the trade show in Locarno, but that’s a completely different story. First, I had to grow into that market, but already from my first year, Moritz [de Hadeln] said: “We want you to come with a new idea” and I thought: “Oh my God! What new idea am I going to bring?” so I told him: “You know, Moritz, ‘Film-messe’ sounds to me a little bit like ‘Messe’ for carpets and furniture. I would like to change the name. I would like to name it ‘European Film Market,’ not because it’s such a wonderful discovery, but because you have the American Film Market on that part of the world, and we are in Europe.” That was my first step.
Then, when you run a cinema, you have to see that money comes in because you sell tickets and that money that comes in has to be enough for you to pay the employees, the rent, the films… It’s a business and for me; the Market was a business I had to run without giving everything for free. What can we sell in a market? We can sell the booth, we can sell screenings and we can sell badges. All that is a business. All that brings money in so that we can become bigger and have more people working. I think that my thing was that I considered the Market as a business.
A festival is not exactly a business because there, the festival director has to prove that he makes a good choice in selecting the films, he has to please the press, he has to please the audience… At the Market, we don’t have that; we don’t make the films, so I don’t have to have film critics writing about the films I am screening. The Market reflects only how the production has been that year and we show what the production offers. I think that was my main purpose. But when I say business, don’t get me wrong because I wanted to create a place where the industry came – buyers, sellers, producers… For me, the biggest reward was when, in that very big amount of films that we had in the Market – because we are talking about four hundred-five hundred films – at least 1/3 were successful. When I say successful, again, for me it meant when there was good business because I think a Market is as good as the business that is done. When the business is slow, you can do whatever you want in a Market – perfect organization and everything running smoothly – the press will still say the Market was slow. So for the Market you need, in a way, success in the sense that there are interesting films, that people find films and that the sellers think it was worth coming to Berlin because when they come, they do spend a lot of money: they have to pay the rent of the booth, they make advertising, they have the badges, so it’s quite a sum of money…
I think that’s what I can say about the Market.
How has the EFM that you created shaped the global film industry?
B.P.: When we started with the EFM, it had a big problem with the American Film Market (AFM) because the AFM used to be in February, almost five days after the EFM. You had the EFM in February shortly after the AFM, then you had Cannes and then you had MIFED in Milan at the end of October-beginning of November. That was the calendar. Then, the Americans killed the MIFED and took its dates, so February became free free us, like a highway! We could just go! And that was a big, big gift to the Market. I always say that it’s the biggest gift the Americans gave us.
Would you say that your work at the EFM contributed to the growth of the Berlinale and helped putting it on the level it is now?
B.P.: I always considered that the Berlinale and the Market are like two Siamese twins. We grew together and we took advantage of each other. When the festival was growing, the Market was growing. It’s an absolute combination. Beautiful.
How has the Market evolved? How did you understand the Market had to change and how have you made the decisions to adapt that turned out to be successful?
B.P.: We are in a period that is changing a lot, so we all have to adapt – not me because my time is over… That is why we have the TV series now. When you do a job like the Market, you have to see that the Market doesn’t sleep and think: “I’m successful, I don’t need anything new”. You always have to adjust and go with the changes and with the program. Sometimes, it happens that you have changes that last one year and then they are gone, but it’s good for a Market to keep up the pace. But once you see you have adjusted, then you see whether it was good or not, but you can’t stay still!
You won the Berlinale Camera this year and your team and the festival concocted quite a surprise for you, which must have been amazing! Can you talk about that?
B.P.: Well, I was very, very touched. It was a day full of emotions and tears. Really. I even thought I wouldn’t be able to talk, but I said a few words. And my team prepared all that in secrecy. I had no idea. I knew I was going to receive it because Dieter [Kosslick] told me that I would, but I didn’t know how it would be handled. They did a wonderful, wonderful thing. And three weeks ago, at the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan, I received an Honorary Golden Apricot.
Congratulations! This is another great recognition for your work! Speaking of recognitions, a documentary about you by Rebecca Panian is in the works. What can you say about that?
B.P.: Yes, she is working on it. I ask myself: “Who will come and see that documentary?”
Oh, but I would definitely come!
B.P.: Thank you! Anyhow, we’ll see… It’s a work in progress!
At the time, all those years ago, the way you changed the EFM was a visionary move and a kind of avant-garde thinking especially as a woman. You thrived and you accomplished all this. You are a model and an inspiration to women working in the film industry today. Any comments on that?
B.P.: I tell you, and again very frankly, without false modesty, I never considered that I am woman and that I have to prove something. For me, in any job, a man and a woman are equal. The job has to be done and the person who can do the best job should be doing the job. They also told me in Locarno: “You are an example; you inspire women…” Maybe I did. I am very grateful if I did, but that was not my intention. I am very sincere when I say that in all those years I never considered myself a pioneer. I am a woman, OK. I was selected to do a job and I wanted to do this job the best I can. I feel, on the contrary, very, very privileged that I have had that opportunity to do that. Really. Sincerely. Berlin has been for me a wonderful, wonderful time of my life. A wonderful school. And in today’s world, after all that’s happening with #MeToo, all this is suddenly something new.
When your colleagues describe you, they use words such as “endurance” and “kindness”. Would you agree with that?
B.P.: Endurance, I have, in everything. It’s not stubbornness; it’s more like if I want to achieve something, I really try to do it. I don’t give up. Kindness – I want to be nice to people. That, I want to be. I don’t understand people who are arrogant. I don’t understand people who are unkind. Why? We are all human beings and I love people. I love the company of people. I am not a lonely person. I love people around me. If I can do something for people, I love to do it.
You are named the “grande dame du cinéma.” What do you make of that title? Do you personally feel like a grande dame du cinéma? How fine is the line between the grande dame du cinéma and Beki?
B.P.: I am Beki. I am not the grande dame, really. That’s something people are calling me. Maybe, they say la grande dame because I am not twenty anymore – that I know! As I said before, I was very privileged to be called to do that job. I tried to do it the best way I thought it would be good. And if people acknowledge that, it’s already great!
Is there someone who inspires you?
B.P.: There are so many wonderful people around the world that inspire me, that I look up to. I don’t have one figure. There are many people that I can think of. When you asked me about the film, that’s where I feel a little bit not so crazy about it because I always say I did not “inventé la poudre” as the French would say. I didn’t make a big invention, so I think that if had been a writer, a painter or a composer, I wouldn’t have had to go to school because I am not a person creative in that sense.
People you met along the way kind of made who you are in a professional sense, in all this trajectory that you made since you first started in the film industry.
B.P.: Well, I met wonderful people. I have been through many, many directors in Locarno. In Berlin, I worked with two directors. All those people we meet at festivals, I must say, I consider it a privilege. I sometimes think what richness it is to meet interesting people because you learn non-stop. I am a curious person, so I like to learn; I like to learn new things, to discover new things. Also there, I say: “Don’t sleep!”
How would you characterize the film business? How was it before? How much has it evolved?
B.P.: As I said before, the film business is experiencing now a big change and people are under tremendous pressure. There is the pressure of being successful. It has always been like this: when you work, you want to have success and that’s normal. But now, I think that what people lack is time. They have no time. I see that. They come to Berlin, they are all set up and they are all the time on their phones and their computers… Life goes by and they are in a private sphere with their phone, their appointments and their screenings, and they see nothing else. I think that’s a shame because there are also other things in life. Sometimes I think: “Why not take a little time that I will call quality time to enjoy a conversation with someone? I will not sell you a film, you will not buy a film from me, but let’s just talk about things that happen in the world, or things about your personal life if we are close,” but it looks like people have no time anymore. That’s a pity.
That is so very true! What is your best and greatest memory from the EFM?
B.P.: Oh! I have so many!
But if you had to pick one that stands out, the one that you love the most, what would it be?
B.P.: It’s a difficult question because I had such wonderful meetings and moments… With the director of the Jerusalem Film Festival, Lia van Leer, and Dan Talbot from the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, we had a tradition: when they were in Berlin, we would go and have dinner. No matter what I had that day, I let it be and I would go and have dinner with them. And when I think back, Lia is not here anymore and neither is Dan… So when I think of things like this, I think: ”Thank God I did it!”
If a young woman came to you to ask for advice because she would like to work in the same sector of the film industry as you, what would you tell her?
B.P.: Well, I would tell her to try it, to see how it works and to see if it functions for her. When I was appointed to Berlin, a German distributor from Futura/Filmverlag – I don’t even know if he’s still alive – told me: “Beki, you have to have a head and a heart” and that’s, I think, what I would give her as an advice – a head and a heart.
What is your proudest moment or achievement during your time at the EFM?
B.P.: My proudest achievement is that I left a wonderful team behind me – a beautiful team, really efficient, responsible, trustworthy… Matthijs [Wouter Knol] can be very happy because I left a wonderful team. That’s a big achievement!
I understand you are leaving the EFM. What’s next for you now?
B.P.: Yes, I am leaving in the sense that now Matthijs took over and I will not be in the daily business, but I am still connected to them, of course. What’s next? You know, once you have had such a fulfilled life, it’s good to have an alternative. So now, I have a lot of festivals coming up; there are places I want to go… My friend, Piers [Handling], in Toronto is also saying goodbye this year, so I want to be there when he does. What I will do is that by November or December, I will be a student at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), where I will study History of Cinema and then, at the École de Cinéma in Lausanne, I will take some script-writing courses. That’s the alternative for the moment!
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Sarajevo Film Festival.