The festival moves ever closer to its goal of becoming an international hub for film and TV co-productionsNRW is used to visitors.
First it was the Romans, then the Prussians, then Napoleon who swept over the western German region of North Rhine-Westphalia. Now it's hordes of international film producers that are invading Cologne, Dusseldorf and the surrounding area, looking for cash and facilities to shoot their projects.
This time, NRW is welcoming the invaders.
With a combination of foreign-friendly regional subsidies, industry-attuned financing tools and top-notch facilities, NRW has triggered a production boom. Last year, the region recorded a record 977 shooting days, up 20% from 2007. Much of that came from visiting features. Stephen Frears' period drama "Cheri," starring Michelle Pfeiffer, spent 15 days at Cologne-based MMC Studios. Lars von Trier turned the region's idyllic forest landscapes into a seething cauldron of sex, violence and betrayal for his Cannes shocker "Antichrist," which had a 40-day shoot in NRW. Stephen Daldry spent three weeks in NRW shooting interiors on Oscar-winner "The Reader" and Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos picked the region as a stand in for North America for his 1940s refugee drama "Dust of Time," starring Michel Piccoli and Willem Dafoe.
After the experience with "Cheri," producer Andras Hamori of H20 Motion Pictures is making NRW his second home. Hamori plans to shoot his next two features in the region: "The Gate," Alex Winter's remake of the 1987 horror classic, which will be the first 3D feature to be shot entirely in Germany; and "Running Wild," a psycho-thriller based on a J.G. Ballard novella and starring Samuel L. Jackson as a psychiatric adviser to the police.
H20 is co-producing both pictures with MMC Independent, the film production/financing arm of MMC Studios. As with "Cheri," Hamori is piecing together financing for the projects by tapping NRW's network of soft and hard cash sources, which include regional subsidies from the NRW Film Board, federally run tax-rebate system the DFFF and gap financing from the state-backed NRW Bank.
"I'm Hungarian. I speak the language and I know the country but I'd rather go back to Germany and NRW than to Hungary," Hamori says. "It has a better set up; producing there is cleaner, more transparent and it makes sense financially."
Topping the list of financial incentives to shoot in NRW is the regional film board. Based in the capital of Dusseldorf, the Film Board has made a concerted effort to back international co-productions. "Reader" received $2.3 million in production and distribution support from the Film Board, Jo Baier's French-German co-production, the period epic "Henry of Navarre," picked up $3.7 million and "Antichrist" received $1.3 million. Biopics "Within the Whirlwind," starring Emily Watson, and "Desert Flower," featuring supermodel Liya Kebede, were backed to the tune of $1.8 million and $1.6 million, respectively.
"We've always tried to reach beyond our borders, across Europe but also around the world," says NRW Film Board CEO Michael Schmid-Ospach, who oversees the board's annual $46 million subsidy allotment.
Co-production with Israel has been a particular hobbyhorse of Schmid-Ospach since he took over at the Film Board in 2001. This year's Golden Lion winner in Venice, Samuel Maoz's "Lebanon," was backed by NRW and there was Film Board cash in many of the most successful titles to come out of Israel in the past five years, including Eran Riklis' "The Syrian Bride" and "Lemon Tree," Dror Shaul's "Sweet Mud," Amos Gitai's "Disengagement" and the U.S.-German-Israeli co-production "Adam Resurrected" directed by Paul Schrader and starring Jeff Goldblum.
"The NRW Film Board is one of the few subsidy bodies that takes its mission seriously, not just in terms of commercial incentives but in terms of cultural support," says Christoph Friedl, of Cologne-based Pandora, which produced "Disengagement" with Israel's Agav Films and Agat Films of France and which specializes in such polyglot co-productions.
Pandora recently picked up $1.75 million in production support for Wayne Wang's next feature, "920 Sacramento," a German-U.S co-production between Pandora and Double Feature Films. The plan is to shoot interiors for the true-life drama -- set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 19th century -- entirely in NRW.
And Pandora is only one of a cluster of small independent production houses in the region that are experts in the tricky business of international co-productions. The short list of go-to firms fine-tuned to the needs of the global indie film world includes Heimatfilm ("Lemon Tree," "Sweet Mud"), Coin ("Love and Other Crimes"), Tatfilm ("Within the Whirlwind," "The Last King of Scotland") and Gringo Films ("True North").
In addition to the foreign-friendly Film Board, NRW's state government has been active in pushing the region's industry to go global. Leading the charge has been NRW's media minister Andreas Krautscheid who this year will again head delegations to bring NRW talent together with players in the L.A. film industry, the San Francisco high-tech business (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) and the New York television business.
Krautscheid was one of the driving forces behind the new gap financing tool run by the NRW Bank -- one of only two banks in Germany that provide gap loans for film production. The bank issues loans of up to €2 million-€3 million ($2.9 million-
$4.4 million), to a maximum 30% of the total budget for approved projects. "Cheri" and "Desert Flower" took advantage of the system to close their financing.
Krautscheid and NRW have also set up a new Internet tool designed to simplify Germany's often tangled web of regional and federal subsidies. The English-language site www.NRWGermanfilmfinance.com lays out both the funding available and the conditions attached and features a budget calculator which producers can use to combine regional financing from NRW with German federal subsidies and Germany's 20% tax credit the DFFF.
"On our first trip to L.A. last year, producers were surprised to learn that you don't have to shoot in Babelsberg to access the DFFF," Schmid-Ospach says. "You can get the same benefit shooting anywhere in NRW."
Bastie Griese, head of MMC Independents, credits Krautscheid with opening up NRW to the possibilities beyond its borders.
"With his visits to the U.S., Krautscheid has got the ball rolling, getting us to think more internationally and getting international productions interested in NRW," Grise says.
MMC's production arm, MMC Independent, is laser-locked on the global market, with plans to do up to eight feature films a year as international co-productions. This move is partly out of necessity. Local television production, MMC's bread-and-butter business, is in a major slump. But it suits the climate: The credit crunch has meant indie producers world-wide are more open to international partnerships than ever before.
"The financial reality is that the only way to get your local, particular stories told is to produce them globally," says Norbert Schneider, director of the NRW broadcasting authority the LfM.
With its international focus and infrastructure assets, NRW is in a prime position to benefit as cross-border financing and co-production becomes more the rule than the exception in independent features.
Adds Hamori: "You have the financing with the NRW Film Board and NRW Bank, you have the facilities in MMC and you have the surrounding infrastructure with – in contrast to Berlin -- direct flights to L.A. and New York. What more do you want?"