Brandenburg Concerto

The state has come into its own as Germany's premiere shooting destination

Crisis? What Crisis?

The credit crunch might have Hollywood reeling, but in Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg, business is booming.

The list of recent shoots in the region reads like a studio slate: "Valkyrie," "The Reader," "The International," "Pandorum," "Ninja Assassin," "Speed Racer" and Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," which should wrap shooting here just as the Berlinale kicks off.

In fact, the official Berlinale lineup looks like last year's shooting schedule. Whether Competition entries such as "Storm" from Hans-Christian Schmid, Panorama highlight "The Countess" from director/star Julie Delpy, or Berlinale Special Screenings of Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe," Kai Wessel's Hildegard Knef biopic "Hilde," or Hermine Huntgeburth's "Effi Briest," the Festival bears the label "made in Berlin/Brandenburg."

"This is the film capital of Germany, no question," says Christoph Fisser, deputy head of Brandenburg-based Studio Babelsberg. "This is where the talent is. This is where the crews are. This is where it is happening."

For an outsider used to images of a hip, modern and ultra-cool Berlin (think "Run Lola Run" or "Bourne Ultimatum"), it might seem obvious the this is where the film biz would gather. But while Berlin is Germany's largest city, it is also one of its poorest. The state of Brandenburg, which envelops the capital, is even worse off, with staggering unemployment and little real industry to speak of.

And while the region has a film history -- Studio Babelsberg can point to almost a century of moviemaking -- going back to the golden era of "Metropolis" (1927) and "The Blue Angel" (1930), its emergence as a modern cinema powerhouse is rather recent. It's only in the last five years that Berlin/Brandenburg has come into its own.

Some mark the beginning of the boom with the takeover, in 2004, of Studio Babelsberg by private investors, led by Fis-ser and studio head Carl Woebcken. Others point to the state subsidy body Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and bosses Petra Muller and Kirsten Niehuus. With an annual budget topping $35 million, the Medienboard has the second-biggest film funding piggy bank in Germany and is on speed dial for every producer in the know, inside the country or out.

Zentropa's Competition entry "Mammoth," for example, picked up Medienboard cash even though it has a Swedish director (Lukas Moodysson), Mexican (Gael Garcia Bernal) and American (Michelle Williams) stars and no principal photography in Germany.

"Because of the story, which is set in Thailand and New York, it was impossible to do any shooting here. We only managed some postproduction," says Maria Kopf, head of Berlin's Zentropa International and a co-producer on "Mammoth." "I think it's great that the Medienboard gave us funding for what is clearly not a German film but an important movie from an important European director."

But other cities have studios. Other regions provide film subsidies. Alone, those factors cannot explain the success of Berlin/Brandenburg. The biggest source of cash for movies shooting in the region doesn't come from local bodies but from the federal government in the form of the DFFF, the German Federal Film Fund.

The tax break incentive doles out 60 million euros ($78 million) every year to productions shooting in Germany. But while anyone from Bonn to Bavaria can apply for DFFF cash, some 60% of the money has been going to productions in the 11,000 square miles in the upper eastern corner of the country.

"Our crews here are specialized in film production. They have experience with big productions. Most crews elsewhere in Germany are really TV crews," says Markus Bensch, a production executive for Studio Babelsberg. "I think partly it has to do with the low cost of living in Berlin. Here you can afford to go a couple of months without work between big film shoots. That would be a problem in Munich or Cologne."

"They have a surprising depth of crew talent here," agrees Lloyd Phillips, who produced Tom Tykwer's Berlinale opener "The International." "You have crews that are used to working on international productions and know how to be flexible."

That flexibility came in handy when Phillips was asked to board Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" as an executive producer.

"We had to pull things together very quickly. We had 12 weeks from Quentin finishing the script to the first day of shooting -- and that included casting of more than 60 speaking rolls," Phillips recalls. "But because the crews here know what they're doing, we were able to pull it together."

"Reliability and good-old German efficiency" is how Henning Molfenter, head of production outfit Studio Babelsberg Motion Pictures, describes it. "Wages might be slightly lower in Hungary or Romania, but if something goes wrong and you have a delay, that can eat up those cost savings pretty quickly. By now, we have a track record, and people know they can depend on us to deliver."

That track record is what convinced Joel Silver, who shot "Ninja Assassin," "Speed Racer" and "V for Vendetta" at Babelsberg, to sign a five-year co-production deal with the Brandenburg studio. Studio Babelsberg will come on as an equity partner on Silver's films, and several will shoot on the German lot.

Babelsberg CEO Woebcken hopes to sign similar deals with other big indie producers, providing a steady flow of productions to the region.

That seems assured. Economic turmoil may be the rule elsewhere, but when it comes to the success of the film business in Berlin/Brandenburg, you can bank on it.

"Film (in Berlin/Brandenburg) is a growth industry for us. I've seen no sign of a crisis in our business at all," says Achim Thielmann, head of film and television financing at Berlin's Commerzbank.

Last year Commerzbank approved financing of $40 million, representing a budget volume of more than $100 million, backing projects such as Michael Hoffmann's "The Last Station," starring James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer and Paul Giamatti; "Helen," directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, with Ashley Judd; and Michael Haneke's remake of "Funny Games," starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt.

"I expect to do a similar amount of business this year," Thielmann says. "It's January now, and when I look at my desk, it's covered in new applications. No sign of a recession here."
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