Renate Zylla: “The festival landscape in North America and Asia evolves in a fast rate”

zyllaFor 17 years, up till 2002, Renate Zylla was director of the Berlinale’s Kinderfilmfest. Then she broadened her horizon, taking out her talents to various Asian festivals. Nowadays working as a festival agent, she guarantees productions a perfect representation abroad. Who could have a better insight in the present-day children’s film festival landscape?

You’ve been a publicist, a festival director, a festival agent, a programmer, an advisor… That’s a remarkable career. Where do you find the strength and energy?
Renate Zylla: “I want to make things happen, do things my own way and on my own terms. I can do nothing half-hearted. Gaining respect for my commitment or finding out that my work has been fruitful is what gives me strength. And also the conviction that what I do, can inspire other people.”

Do you like to be called ‘a self-made woman’?
Zylla: “I can identify with that description.”

Nowadays we know you as a festival agent.
Zylla: “In 2009 THE CROCODILES wasn’t ready for the Berlinale, so the film was lacking international interest. It was clear that if the film could make it to the international festival scene, it could become a best seller. This film for me was a dream come true: ever since I worked for the Berlinale’s Kinderfilmfest, I had been dreaming about a remake of that 1978 classic. When the producers accepted my help, I gave myself the title ‘festival agent’ and I easily restored my long lasting good contacts with the most important children’s film festivals worldwide. They were euphorically about THE CROCODILES. As if the festivals – just like me – had all been waiting for this film to be made.”

What exactly does it mean to be a festival agent?
Zylla: “My contacts with festivals are never anonymous nor formal. In my first contact I present the film and its characteristics and I specify the options for the festival. If this wakes an interest, I fill out the official application, I keep in touch with the festival management and I put a little diplomatic pressure on them. I contact the local Goethe Institute, who sometimes share in the transportation or translation costs. I handle invitations for the director or crew members or – most preferably – for the young actors. All THE CROCODILES’ actors went on festival trips to Taipei, Oulu, London, Copenhagen, Poznan… I take care of every detail that can improve a film’s representation. I coordinate film copies and eventually negotiate about screening fees. Finally I guarantee a correct handling of catalogues and eventually certificates and awards.
I always work for the benefit of the producer, who is my employer. They often think they can handle things themselves. But the task of a festival agent goes further than what any producer or sales agent can do. Meanwhile even the festivals are knocking my door to find out which new titles I can offer in 2011.”

Some festivals can play a decisive role in a film’s career. But what is the promotional value of an average, smaller festival?
Zylla: “In every country or region, children’s film festivals have their specific importance, creating visibility for a film and sometimes catching the attention of potential buyers or distributors. To sum up some recent examples: for instance THE CROCODILES’ contract with Polish television was a direct result of a festival screening in Poznan. Due to its success in the Golden Elephant Festival in Hyderabad, the film went on a one year tour through India and Sri Lanka. Through the US premier in the Children’s Film Festival Seattle, the film received invitations for many other US festivals. And when I was the director of the Tokyo Children’s Film Festival (2003 – 2010), many international productions after their festival premier were put out on the DVD market, sometimes with remarkable success, like the Dutch movie MINOES and the Canadian-German co-production KAYLA. Every festival selection can have an effect, depending upon the way the festival co-operates with the local press and distributors.”

With THE CROCODILES you’ve gained ‘glory’. Seldom is a film such a worldwide festival hit. What is the recipe for its success?
Zylla: “This film has everything a good children’s film needs: good actors, thrills and laughter, cool music, a social commitment served in a light way, a professional production value and an adventurous story about friendship that plays in the here and now, not in a fantasy world. Because THE CROCODILES stands so close to reality, it has a high potential for identification. It stimulates children to act independently and encourages their self-esteem. But most of all the film is based on a good story. Christian Ditters version in a wonderful way transmits a 30 year old story from a book by Max von der Grün into a modern setting.
Most remarkable: in every festival THE CROCODILES won the children’s jury award. The collection of awards and certificates has grown rather considerable by now. The latest one came from the children’s jury in the Nepal International Children’s Film Festival in Kathmandu.”

Were there any other films over the years that have given you a similar satisfaction?
Zylla: “Not in the same way. But as director of the Kinderfilmfest, I’ve played a decisive role in some movies’ careers. Seeing the rough cut of the Norwegian SCARS (by Lars Berg), I could tell this would be a fantastic film. I called Lars in the edit room and told him SCARS was selected. That gave him the energy to finish the film. How nice that it became the winner that year. In 1997 I saw the rough cut of the Spanish TIC TAC (by Rosa Verges), a film dealing with the philosophical concept of ‘eternity’. When calling the producer about the selection, she was overwhelmed with joy. Later she told me on that moment she didn’t have money to finish the film. The selection for Berlin gave her the courage to complete the budget.”

Nowadays you’re promoting 7 OR WHY I EXIST (by Antje Starost & Hans Helmut Grotjahn), a very different type of movie. Why does it deserve its place in every festival?
Zylla: “It is a feature documentary, giving insight in a childlike universe. With amazing earnestness, seven children try to answer life’s great existential questions. You could say the director visualized children’s thinking. It’s not easy finding festivals willing to screen it, but I’m highly motivated. I think this film could please the grown-ups too as it reminds them of their own childhood. ‘The film is a gift that broadens our perspective and opens our heart,’ one critic wrote. ‘What makes this film stand out is that it shows respect to children. It works on all levels, speaking to children and adults, in particular adults who work with children. It’s beautifully shot! I can’t wait to see it on the big screen’ is what Venay Felton (director of the Children’s Film Festival Vancouver) said. 7 OR WHY I EXIST is a funny, life-affirming film. In a way it could be the symbol for the children’s film industry: it takes them seriously.”

Do you only work with German titles?
Zylla: “Not at all. It is important a film convinces me, so that I can convince others. Now I’ll start working with CCC Filmkunst’s WUNDERKINDER (by Marcus O. Rosenmüller). A story about 3 musically gifted children in 1941 in Ukraine. When the Nazis come marching in, their lives get deeply influenced. Being a festival agent for this film is a real challenge.”

Did you see the German children’s film industry evolve over the last years?
Zylla: “Many things have changed. The implementation of the ‘Lola’ national children’s film awards since 2002 was a positive acknowledgement, stimulating producers and directors, just like the ‘Children’s Tiger’ (‘Kindertiger’), giving financial support to an awarded scenario.
The economical circumstances have changed too. Producers nowadays realise you can make money on German children’s films. THE CROCODILES 3 (“All for One”) just opened in the theatres hitting the 6th rank in the box office charts. Since the success of THE WILD SOCCER BUNCH (5 episodes) yearly a growing amount of children’s films were produced: the WILD CHICKS series, LILLI THE WITCH, LIPPEL’S DREAM, HERE COMES LOLA (in which I see a great potential)… all of them made after children’s literature, which seems to guarantee them a career in theatres, on DVD and on television.”

Years ago we all got to know Renate Zylla as director of the Berlinale’s Kinderfilmfest. How do you look back upon those Berlin years?
Zylla: “As a fantastic time. Being in a leading position in an ‘A festival’ gives you a chance to really make things happen. Over those 17 well-filled years I had many great experiences and made very valuable contacts. In my last year (2002) as director, celebrating the Kinderfilmfest’s 25th anniversary, I captured the story of the festival in a book: ’25 Jahre Kinderfilmfest der Internationalen Filmfestspiele Berlin: Blicke, Begegnungen, Berührungen’ (‘Moments, Meetings, Emotions’). That book is still my ‘business card’.”

Have you seen the international festival landscape changing ever since?
Zylla: “There are plenty of new festivals these days. Especially in North America and Asia, the festival landscape evolves in a fast rate. Only in California there are festivals in Los Angeles, Mill Valley, Danville and San Diego. The Seoul International Youth Film Festival and the Seoul International Family Film Festival are taking place at almost the same moment. In Jakarta, Indonesia there are two festivals, one named Kids Film Fest International and the other one Goelali Children’s Film Festival. The Goelali Festival takes place in a poor neighbourhood, offering those children a cultural event and trying to implement a form of media education. Profiles and concepts differ in every festival according to their target group and ambitions.
This booming of new festivals fulfils an existing need. But for producers it becomes difficult to react to this growing number. New festivals are facing hard times to acquire films and it gets more common for producers, sales agents and National Film Institutes to ask for screening fees.
Renowned festivals like Cinekid are evolving more and more into a market where TV and cinema programmers, distributors, sales agents, etc. come to do business.”

You’ve set up a festival landscape in Asia, with festivals in Japan, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh… Where does the Asian interest in children’s films come from?
Zylla: “As director of the Kinderfilmfest, I further developed the festival concept, inspiring people to organize similar events in their own country. Like Yukiko Hibino in 1992, setting up the first children’s film festival in Japan. This festival I’ve tutored for 19 years. I was an advisor for festivals in Lucknow (India), Kathmandu (Nepal), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Bangladesh, based on my knowledge about films and my contacts with producers and animation studios. A growing amount of mainly commercial productions makes its way to the Asian continent. However, people with a cultural commitment who want to present quality cinema with a strong content to the vast Asian young audience, came with concepts for new festivals.
Following in the footsteps of those festivals Asian countries got more and more productive. The number of Asian films presented in European festivals is growing, with the Indian I AM KALAM (by Nila Madham Panda) as the latest example.”

Is there a true exchange between both continents? If not, then you could consider this just another step towards the European colonisation of the world.
Zylla: “I wouldn’t call it like that. There is an interrelation and a mutual influence, but perhaps it is not yet well balanced.”

Which country would you like to add to your international festival network?
Zylla: “The USA is a huge potential market. In earlier days we only knew Chicago as a festival with a worldwide appeal, but I found many ambitious children’s film festivals in every American state: Seattle (Washington), Mill Valley (California), Minneapolis (Minnesota), Providence (Rhode Island), Sarasota (Florida), Ashville (North Carolina), Columbus (Ohio), Northampton (Massachusetts), to only name a few. I advise them all to subscribe to ECFA’s festival list!”

Is there another (professional) dream waiting to be fulfilled?
Zylla: “I wish I could give more consistent support to artistic, animated short films for the youngest audience. That is one of my wishes. And I was just contacted by Swedish television. After promoting ‘Sixten’ (trailer on through my festival contacts, they now propose me to become the official festival agent for all Swedish children television productions. They have invited me to Stockholm for negotiations. That is for sure a dream coming true!”

Gert Hermans