Berliners feasting on film, TV jobs

Surge in production has city scrambling for talent

Being a media professional in Berlin used to mean one thing: long lines at the unemployment office.

But with a fleet of big U.S. films, including "Valkyrie," "Speed Racer," "The International" and "The Reader," and a sudden surge in television production competing for talent, these days it's the local employment agencies calling talent who are already committed.

"One can actually choose what project to work on," says best boy Axel Renner, who has worked on five films this year, among them Bryan Singer's World War II thriller "Valkyrie." He is now taking some much-needed time off to spend with his daughter while his wife, also an industry professional, returns behind the camera.

He is not alone. "During my last shoot, I got 15 new job offers, all of which I had to decline," says costume assistant Theresa Anna Luther, who also worked on the ubiquitous Tom Cruise shoot and an assortment of other films. "The thing is that there's really nobody available in Berlin for certain positions anymore."

So what has changed? The introduction of a new film-funding scheme for one, the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF), which refunds up to 20% of the German production costs and has been instrumental in getting such big-ticket shoots as "Speed Racer" and "International" onto the Babelsberg studio lot.

Designed to boost economic development, the DFFF does away with the German decision-by-committee mentality, dispensing funds on the basis of a point system, much like the Canadian plan, with an annual €60 million ($85 million) budget pledged until 2009.

But the DFFF can't be the only reason Berlin's production scene has suddenly become so vibrant: Television production, specifically excluded from the new funding, also has markedly risen — to the point that Berlin's equipment houses have run out of 16mm cameras, still the preferred format for local television films and series. Nobody really knows why television production is suddenly on the rise in Berlin — the common consensus being that the constant migration of talent from Cologne, Hamburg and Munich must have triggered the noticeable upswing.

This is somewhat ironic because television producers have been hit particularly hard by the sudden drought of below-the-line talent: "I recently tried to hire a gaffer, but it's impossible to find good, qualified people in this city anymore," says Olav Mann, head of production for the television company Producers-at-Work, which is co-owned by Pro7Sat1. "We used to recruit people from the second tier because the top people in the field were only doing theatrical movies, but now everybody else is, too. All we're left with are inexperienced people whom we could not possibly use," he laments, adding that he's now flying in a gaffer from Cologne for the project.

So what attracts local crews to big international productions? "It's not the money. The working conditions are more generous," Luther says. "There is simply more personnel."

Renner, who estimates his pay increase for "Valkyrie" as a "modest" 20%, sees other benefits as well: "All these stars are not staying in a small motel in Babelsberg but are filling up the great hotels in Berlin. The money is not just going into the film industry; it's great for all of Berlin."

But as everybody in Berlin knows all too well from the late '90s, when every abandoned warehouse was seen as a potential soundstage and effects houses loaded up on expensive equipment, this vibrant new job market might not be here in perpetuity.

"There will be harder times ahead," says Renner, who admits that he does not believe a new recession to be around the corner: "I'm waiting for the first production to be canceled because they can't find a crew."

With Tom Tykwer's Clive Owen starrer "International"; "Effi," Hermine Huntgeburth's take on "Effi Briest"; and Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" shooting in the region, that time might not be too far off. But then again, for Berlin, it's a nice problem to have.