Zurich banks on becoming European film hub
Evidence from film fest suggests investment is on the riseZURICH -- If money had a hometown, it would be Zurich. Walking down Bahnhofstrasse ostentatious wealth crowds in from all sides. Looming above the imposing HQs of Credit Suisse and UBS. At eye level the luxury boutiques of Prada, Dior, Armani et al.
Glamour however, particularly the silver screen variety, is a rare commodity here. The Swiss film industry is puny and while there is plenty of capital around, little gets put into the movie business. But evidence from the Zurich Film Festival, which wraps up its sixth edition Oct. 3, suggests things are changing.
On the glamour side, Zurich this year has flown in carpet strolling VIPs include Danny DeVito, "Entourage" star Adrian Greiner and "Frost/Nixon" lead Frank Langella alongside Oscar-winning directors Milos Forman and Oliver Stone. Last year, of course, Zurich got more press attention than it could handle after director Roman Polanski, en route to receive the Zurich Festival's lifetime achievement award, was arrested by Swiss police on a decades-old sex charge. Zurich hopes coverage this year will be more tinsel and less scandal.
On the money side, Swiss investors are starting to put some of their vast capital into the dream business.
Karl Spoerri exemplifies both trends. As director of the Zurich Festival, he's responsible for juicing the star quotient at the fest premieres. As managing director of financing/production company Millbrook Pictures, he and partner Thomas Sterchi -- a former Internet entrepreneur -- have helped bankroll features including Oliver Stone's Bush biopic "W." to David Cronenberg's upcoming "A Dangerous Method" starring Viggo Mortensen and Kiera Knightly.
"There's something in the Swiss character that is uncomfortable with the glamour of the film business," Spoerri, a Zurich native, explains. "The old generation was uncomfortable with investing in the flashy film business. But that's changing. The new generation likes the stars and the red carpet and investment is starting to flow."
Take 39-year-old Swiss billionaire Philippe Gaydoul, heir to a vast Swiss industrial fortune, who recently took a 30% stake in Lailaps Pictures, a film production company owned by German producer Nils Dunker and Swiss actor Anatole Taubman. Gaydoul plans to invest equity and development cash in mainly English-language productions in the $5 million - $15 million range.
Take Michael Steiner, one of Switzerland's hottest young directors. When he had trouble completing financing for his new feature "Sennentuntschi," the Swiss owners of German mini-studio Constantin Film came to the rescue, investing more than $3 million to finish production. "Sennentutschi" was the opening film in Zurich this year and Steiner now has a three-year output deal with Constantin.
A short drive outside Zurich's picturesque Altstadt is an even clearer sign that the film business has arrived. On the campus of Zurich's ETH technical university, Disney/Pixar has opened Disney Research Zurich, the studio's only tech research lab outside the U.S. The lab, a joint venture between Disney and the university, specializes in computer animation and 3-D technology, technology the Mouse House hopes to use in everything from feature films to high-tech rides at Disney theme parks.
Zurich still has a long way to go. Private equity and state-backed soft money for film production is much easier to come by in neighboring France and Germany. Without a film office to coordinate production, big budget shoots in Zurich are a rarity.
"David Fincher considered Zurich as a location for parts of (upcoming thriller) 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'," Spoerri says, "but he dropped it because they didn't know who to call."
But Spoerri is optimistic about the future.
"In most places, money is the issue. That's not the case here. Switzerland has plenty of money," he says. "Film was just never on the agenda before. But a lot has changed in the last five years. Investors are starting to see the possibilities in the film business."
Given the vast capital resources on display in Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse, that might be enough to convince producers around the world to start putting Zurich on speed dial.