Special report: Germany

"Vicki the Viking"

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BERLIN -- If the German film business was a ball player, 2009 would be the year it turned pro.

Teutonic cinema has had a number of good seasons behind it. The market share for local-language production has held strong between 20%-25% for a good five years now. But what set 2009 apart wasn't just the near-record performance for German productions -- 27% of total admissions -- but the fact that the result wasn't driven by one or two blockbusters but rather a broad range of homegrown films targeting every possible genre and demographic.

A dozen German titles sold more than 1 million tickets -- the standard measure for a boxoffice hit here. Munich indie Constantin Film had its strongest year ever, with six local-language features topping the 1 million admissions mark. The
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hits ranged from Til Schweiger's romantic comedy "Rabbit Without Ears 2" -- the sequel to his 2008 blockbuster -- to the medieval period drama of "Pope Joan" (€18 million boxoffice) to the family entertainment of "Vicky the Viking," Michael Herbig's live-action adaptation of a '70s cartoon that sold nearly 5 million tickets last year and was Germany's No. 1 domestic hit.

"The German film industry has become a lot more professional in the last few years," says "Vicky" producer Christian Becker, whose Rat Pack Prods. has supplied Constantin with a string of boxoffice overachievers. "It used to be much more difficult to get financing for German productions, the trust wasn't there from the distributors. But now that we are regularly delivering high quality productions, there's a sense of trust from distributors that if a German film is good, they'll be an audience for it."

While local boxoffice success used to be a more random occurrence -- the breakout debut, the low-budget comedy hit -- the German film scene now looks a lot more like a Hollywood studio system. Most of Constantin's hits last year were carefully planned marketing events -- films built on established media properties. "Men's Business" was built entirely around the stand-up comedy of Germany's No. 1 live act, Mario Barth; "Pope Joan" is a high-gloss period piece

"The Hairdresser"
 
based on a best-selling novel; "Vicky," a cross-promoted media event which saw the film's promotion begin nearly a year before release. "Rabbit Without Ears 2," which Warners released in Germany, was a textbook example of the Hollywood sequel. Til Schweiger, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, faithfully copied all the elements that made the original a hit -- even using the exact same poster for the new film.

"It really has become a lot more like the American system," Becker says. "Before, you just sold a project on the basis of a script. Now it's much more about the packaging. Very early, right at the start, you are thinking about the actors and directors attached to the project, about the marketing strategy and the target audience."

The success of German-language features has attracted new players to the market. All the U.S. majors are active in distributing and/or producing for the local market. Warners has been the most successful with the "Rabbit Without Ears" franchise and the all-star rom-com "Men in the City," but Sony scored a recent hit with Markus Goller's reunification comedy "Friendship!" and Disney has shored up its German kids base with locally-made children's fare "Lily the Witch 2" and "Princess Lillyfee."

New production outfits seem to sprout up every day. Would-be giants UFA Cinema are charging forward with their ambitious plans to deliver some 8 films annually, with the first children's titles, "Devil Kickers" and "Hanni and Nanni," set to bow this year. Deutschfilm, launched at the Berlin Film Festival last year, is finishing "Goethe!" a romantic drama based on the life of the 18th century German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which buyers will get a first peak at the European Film Market. And in January, Regina Ziegler, one of Germany's leading television producers, set up her own film production label, Ziegler Cinema.

"It's an ideal time to launch a film production company because German films have been flying high for more than two years now," Ziegler says. "German productions were largely responsible for the boxoffice jump we saw last year."

Zeigler Cinema's first production is Jo Baier's big-budget period drama "Henry of Navarre," which Bavaria Film International is selling at the EFM. The Zeigler lineup runs the gambit from the modern-day romantic comedy "Freshly Squeezed," based on a local bestseller, to the period drama "The Concubine of Shanghai," an adaptation of the historic novel by Chinese author Hong Ying.


"Henry of Navarre"
 
The German offerings at the EFM have a similar breadth in terms of genre and style. Bavaria's big mainstream titles ("Henry of Navarre," "Rabbit Without Ears 2") are matched by genre films such Telepool's "The Door" -- a science fiction/horror title Telepool is selling; "The Hairdresser," the new feel good comedy from Doris Doerrie which Fortissimo has on its EFM slate; or Frieder Wittich's "13 Semesters -- The Early Bird Catches the World," a highlight in Akis Film International's lineup and arguably the first ever German campus comedy.

2010 looks even bigger for German cinema. X Filme, which last year delivered Palme d'Or winner and Oscar nominee "The White Ribbon," has new projects from its three founding members: Tom Tykwer, Wolfgang Becker and Dani Levy. Egoli Tossell, the Berlin-based company behind double Oscar nominee "The Last Station" can boast an upcoming slate that includes Olivier Assayas' terrorist drama "Carlos the Jackal," period epic "Black Death" starring Sean Bean and culinary-themed comedy "Bon Appetit" with "Rabbit Without Ears" star Nora Tschirner.

And Christian Becker of Rat Pack is taking on the U.S. studios at their own game with the sequel to "Vicky the Viking," which will be the first German film shot in 3-D.

"It's a market we have to move into," he says. "Where we are now, it's not just local films we're competing against. Our real competition now is Hollywood."
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