At a time when dark scenarios on the film industry and cinemas are being talked over, the wondrous story of Wolf Kinois inspiring to listen from its founder, Verena von Stackelberg.
As a follow-up to my interview with film curator and author Pamela Cohn last week.
Long live independent cinemas!
Cover illustration: Claudia Schramke
From Brothel to Cinema
S: You stepped into the building that would eventually become Wolf on December 2011. Tell me the story starting from what you had in mind back then.
V: I was looking for a space that would accommodate a flexible cinema with a big community spirit. Something that would also have space for a cafe/bar and for actual filmmaking itself and screens that would be small so that the small films we show don’t feel small if only 50 people come. Or if only 25 people come it feels full. This space I found was in the opposite of where I live. It was an old brothel. I was very lucky that I just got in at a moment when it was for rent. Next to it there was a take away that was also empty. And I asked them if it would be possible to rent both.
But I thought if I rent this place from these people I would be in a very precarious position so I found people who are also working in the film industry, they basically bought the whole ground space to become my landlords.
They had the money to buy it but did not have more money for the refurbishing. So this whole idea of finding the right people to become partners and finding the financial concept that would work on the one side to make it a very beautiful space. On the other side, not to put much financial strain on the idea itself took me quite a long time. Fast forward to 2014 December, Jean-Christophe Simonfrom Films Boutique (a world sales film company) offered me help to launch a crowd funding campaign with KissKissBankBank.And within this process I had a lot of meetings with people from the neighborhood, with curators and filmmakers and journalists. We built a temporary screen and a temporary bar to show people what we want to do. So the cinema was actually running before it was built.
There was a lot of curiosity and it was already clear that it would be kind of a community project. In this period I met people who would like to voluntarily support the project. This meant that from the crowdfunding I already had a team and I was convinced people wanted the cinema and there was a strong circle of supporters from the beginning. It was a really beautiful experience even though so much work that I promised myself never to do it again. We shot a real movie with a real wolf walking through the neighborhood. There was a lot of physical, digital and local campaigning. We raised 55 thousand Euro in the end and a lot of attention. One of the people that I really wanted to invest, every time he sat in his the car and put the radio on there was an interview with me. So he was convinced that it was a sign and to come on board. That was really the final person that I needed to make it happen.
This Idea Wanted to Happen.
S: I am amazed by how consistent you worked with your idea over the years and how there was always people around.
V: That was the beauty of it.
This idea wanted to happen. There were many moments I was out of energy, all the years that passed. But every time I was about to give up somebody jumped in and said no you can’t, it is gonna happen.
S: Neukölln is a special neighborhood where the cinema is located. Can you imagine Wolf in another neighborhood?
V: No, it had to be in the neighborhood where I am based in order to be a part of the community. It is not some business concept. At the time when I moved here many people who are interested in arts and culture moved here because it was an affordable district But now it is one of the more expensive areas. It is also one of the most diverse. About 70 per cent of the business here is not German.
S: And you opened... How does it look now?
V: It has two screens with fifty and forty seats a cafe/bar and we serve lunch. We also have like a gallery space for readings, exhibitions, small concerts, where people from the neighborhood can come together to discuss politics and things like that. Together with Marcin Malaszczak we have a post-production space where we do color grading, it is called Planemo. The idea was always to have a place for filmmakers where they can work on their films and where they can present their films to the public and a place where the neighborhood can meet with or without films. A space where you can meet, you can discover interesting people and films and people behind the films.
We have a weekly meeting with school kids who learn about cinema curation and making films, film criticism. This is what I find most important as I think we should engage young people as early as possible with the magic of cinema. We have kids screenings every day at 4 pm. Then we also have a distribution company inside Wolf, very offbeat films that we distribute. We have a monthly printed film programme with collectable film posters made by young artists. We also had a podcast but that is asleep now, that was too much.
S: It really is! This is like a film festival but going on non-stop.
V: Yes, that is how I sold it at the beginning as well.
S: Let’s speak about now. What is the situation during pandemic?
V: The bond with the audience is very important for places like ours. In Berlin you always have the winter months that work very well and then you have the summer months where people rarely go to the cinema. So we always have to have savings for summer. But now we will have to use all our savings to keep the cinema open. We got some financial support and are in the process of applying for more. In the beginning I wanted to keep all the staff, but we are running out of money so I had to make some tough decisions. Everyone who works at Wolf is very understanding, but we all are now in a precarious financial situation. While in some areas in Germany it is already allowed to reopen cinemas or have published some specific reopening dates, in Berlin it’s not clear. Some say it will not be until 31. July. And then we can only sell half the ticktes per screen or less, and same for our café-bar that will only allow a few costumers at a time.
It’s a bleak outlook and if we don’t get financial support for the entire time of the heavy limitations, we will have to close or make a radical re-think.
A Massive Traffic Jam at the Moment
My big worry is what is happening to the film industry in the larger picture to look at it in a holistic way films are not being produced right now as they cannot be shoot. Then festivals are cancelled so films don’t get the attention that they need to then be written about and receive awards and create a buzz to be then shown at cinemas. So there is a whole backlog of films that was supposed to be released now but waiting for the cinemas to reopen. So for the first months the money maker movies will probably not release first as distributors would want to wait until people go back to the habit of watching films. There is like a massive traffic jam at the moment, that really worries me.
I am also worried about on demand streaming offers where money does not matter, fast-forwarded the digital release and cinema release at the same time. That was already happening but this is now out of control. This means film will be released on digital platforms and the cinemas at the same time. And cinemas will have to offer much more to offer a very exclusive program.
S: We’ve been discussing this a lot after Roma last year. There are also cinema collaborations with streaming services. For example you can watch the films curated by Başka Sinema (The Other Cinema)at your home buying a ticket. Do you think cinemas can walk hand in hand with movie theaters?
V: Physical will never replace any digital initiatives. I think cinemas can work with online programs, there are some great ideas out there and I am sure even better ones are coming. I think it is inevitable and we have to make the best of it. My only concern is about exclusivity, more now than ever been before. For example, we showed Roma, we showed Netflix films and they were the best grossing films at Wolf so I am all for this simultaneous screenings. You have to be careful which film it is, how you do it and how it is communicated. We need very well curated online platforms, very well curated cinemas, that make it very clear to the audience what it is they are buying.
S: The thing that worries me related with this is cinemas closing down. Also during the pandemic in Istanbul, a cinema that has been for me for ever there, just closed down, that is very sad.
V: So sad. Which one is that?
S: It is Rexx in Kadıköy, in the Anatolian side of Istanbul. It is a meeting point where you would say let’s meet in front of Rexx. That being sad we now have more and more cinemas in shopping malls which is really strange to me. That is why your independent cinema is amazing.
V: Kundura Sinemais an independent cinema in Istanbul that I know. I was thinking of visiting them, they also told me about the hardship.
S: Well, I hope you would survive the pandemic safe and sound. Thank you very much for this interview.
V: With pleasure.