Can Til Schweiger Beat Germany's Action Movie Curse?

Syrreal Entertainment/Nik Konietzny
'Nick Off Duty'

"It's the worst market in the world for these kind of movies," says the country's biggest film star as he readies a new action film.

For a country that includes Wolfgang Peterson (Air Force One), Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) and Robert Schwentke (R.E.D.) among its Hollywood exports, Germany produces surprisingly few action movies.

In neighboring France, Luc Besson and his company EuropaCorp, churn out action franchises en-masse, from the French-language Taxi series to the Transporter, Taken and, most recently, the Lucy series. The U.K. has the likes of Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Kingsman), Scandinavia has action-packed features such as Denmark's The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Absent One or Hallvard Braein's action comedy racing film Borning, the most popular local-language film in Norway last year.

In Germany, comedies, period dramas and brooding art house films are produced in abundance but it's a rare year that delivers a German action flick, rarer still one that works at the box office. 

Til Schweiger, Germany's biggest box office draw, has made a name internationally with turns in films like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. But at home, Schweiger has found success primarily with rom-coms, which he typically writes, directs and stars in. His last comedy, Head Full of Honey, has earned more than $65 million at the German box office. His 2012 effort The Guardians, an action thriller, made less than $6.5 million.

“Germany is the country where action films perform the worst,” Schweiger tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It's the worst market in the world for these kind of movies.”

Which is odd to hear Schweiger say, particularly as it's on the set of Nick Off Duty, a German action film which Warner Bros. will release here next year. The film is a cinematic spinoff of popular German television crime series Tatort, featuring the rebel cop character Nick that Schweiger has played in several episodes. 

Nick Off Duty director Christian Alvart has learned first hand how difficult it can be to sell genre to German audiences. His features – from German serial killer drama Antibodies (2005), to Renee Zellweger-starrer Case 39 (2009) and sci-fi horror Pandorum (2009) with Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster – have delighted many critics but all grossed less than $1 million at the German box office.

Nick Off Duty, which is budgeted at more than $9 million, will have to do a lot better. Anything under 1 million admissions would likely be seen as a failure by the film's backers, which, alongside WB Germany include Schweiger's shingle Barefoot Films, Alvart's firm Syrreal Entertainment and German public broadcaster NDR.

Alvart, however, is optimistic. He points to the “built in brand” of Tatort, Germany's most popular television series.

“We're hoping that translates to the cinema,” Alvart says. Tatort episodes featuring Schweiger's Nick character, directed by Alvart, have been among the best-rated in recent years. More than 12.7 million watched the first “Nick Tatort” in 2013.

“We obviously won't get that [whole TV] audience to go to the cinema, but if we get 30 percent of them, we'll have a mega hit,” Schweiger says.

It's a recipe that's worked before. In the 1980s, Constantin Film produced a pair of Tatort-inspired box office hits starring Gotz George, then the country's biggest audience draw.

Nick Off Duty will be the fifth Til Schweiger Tatort directed by Alvart, with the fourth airing in November this year, shortly before the film's premiere Jan.1, 2016. Global Screen has picked up international sales rights to Nick Off Duty and will screen footage for buyers at the American Film Market in November.

While the film's $9 million budget is still tiny for a U.S. action movie, Schweiger points to the ability of German crews to squeeze out more bang for their buck.

“I made The Guardians for $8 million - $8.2 million and Greg Silverman [president of worldwide production at Warner Bros.] said, 'If we'd shot that, to make it look like that, it would have cost us $100 million.”

Alvart certainly has pulled out all the stops for Nick Off Duty, with chase scenes on location on the roofs of Istanbul and the streets of Moscow and a general approach of making everything “bigger and louder” for the big screen. WB Germany is treating Nick Off Duty like a studio release, with a wide bow planned in January. 

But however the movie performs, Alvart says he's won't give up trying to make action work in Germany. His Syrreal Entertainment company recently set up a genre label, Syrreal Suspense, to produce low-budget genre films with first-time German directors. The first, Sum1 featuring Game of Thrones star Iwan Rheon, is in post. Global Screen is handling world sales on all Syrreal Suspense titles.

“What's important is for German directors to try out the genre, to make movies, even if they fail,” says Alvart. “It's only if we get enough action films made, that directors get that experience, that some are going to work. The important thing is to not give up.”

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