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Raised eyebrows and snorts of disbelief initially greeted FremantleMedia — makers of "American Idol" and "X Factor" — when it said it would re-animate legendary German film house UFA (makers of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis").

Nowadays, UFA makes its money from TV production — everything from soaps to telefilms. But with its new theatrical label, UFA Cinema, Fremantle plans to produce eight to 10 German films a year budgeted at €4 million ($6 million)-€15 million ($23 million) each. The company says it has some 40 productions in development and will announce an initial slate in the coming weeks.

It is an ambitious venture. The German market is already oversupplied, with a surplus of local-language films chasing the same niche audience. But Fremantle's ambitions don't end at the German border. The company and its parent, RTL, see UFA Cinema as a model for a network of European film studios. Fremantle CEO Tony Cohen has already named France and Spain as potential markets for UFA-style production operations.

Fremantle's strategy is a new spin on the old dream of creating a European major. Instead of trying to make big-budget, English-language Euro-puddings, Fremantle plans to keep it all homegrown, targeting the market for local-language films that exists in every European territory.

It's a model that's worked for TV. Local European productions tend to outperform imported series in their home territories. Fremantle already has a strong pan-European production network for small-screen fare, a network it plans to tap for its cinema ventures.

In Germany, Fremantle is looking to UFA subsidiary TeamWorx. TeamWorx principals Nico Hoffmann and Jurgen Schuster together with UFA head Wolf Bauer will head up UFA Cinema, joined by Thomas Peter Friedl, formerly head of distribution at leading German indie Constantin Film.

TeamWorx has a solid reputation for delivering high-end TV miniseries with budgets and special effects that put most European films to shame. Some of the biggest and best — including historical epics "Dresden" and "The Tunnel" — were directed by Roland Suso Richter, a talent expected to feature prominently in UFA's theatrical plans.

But it's an open question whether UFA and TeamWorx can transfer their TV success to the big screen. Richter's previous theatrical efforts — German films such as "After the Truth" (1999) and the English-language thriller "The I Inside" (2003) — were boxoffice flops.

Still, with RTL as its sugar daddy, UFA will have the cash to go large and in Thomas Friedl has one of the best distribution execs in the business. Now they just have to find the new Fritz Lang.

Scott Roxborough can be reached at sroxborough@yahoo.de.
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