Executive Suite: How Tobis Film Co-Owners Plan to Revive a Storied German Indie Outlet

Timm Oberwelland and Peter Eiff - Publicity -H 2016
Courtesy of Gene Glover

With 'Bad Moms' and 'My Little Pony' in the pipeline, the ambitious Berlin-based duo Timm Oberwelland and Peter Eiff are just getting started.

When Tim Oberwelland, 47, a onetime film and TV producer whose family controls the Storck chocolate empire (Werther’s Original, Toffifee), and veteran international marketing executive Peter Eiff, 50 (New Regency, BVI), bought one of Germany’s leading distributors 14 months ago, their motto could have been: Make Tobis Great Again.

For decades, the Berlin-based distributor has been a byword for quality art house movies from the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodovar and the Coen brothers. But when Oberwelland and Eiff — together with long-term Tobis executive Theodor Gringel — bought out Tobis shareholders on July 15, 2015, the company was well into a slow decline, hit by a shake-up in the art house industry that has made crossover independent films harder to find.

A year on, the new Tobis is beginning to take shape: Bad Moms, the first film from their freshly minted output deal with STX Entertainment, hits German theaters Sept. 22, and after buying sprees in Berlin and Cannes, the company boasts a bulging, eclectic slate ranging from the Richard Gere/Laura Linney starrer The Dinner to Hasbro’s upcoming My Little Pony film. And, as the two execs told The Hollywood Reporter, they are just getting started.

The art house market is in crisis. Why did you pick now to buy into the independent film business?

Eiff: There are a lot of challenges, both on the supply side, getting access to commercially viable product, and on the demand side, as parts of the exploitation chain have come under assault. The prestige art house market particularly has come under pressure. I don’t want to speak for Universal management, but there was probably a reason they decided to re-gear Focus Features. But what makes the situation with Tobis unique is here we have an established company, with an incredible legacy, as one of the best-known brands in the theatrical business in Germany. But we want to do it all: from prestige drama to family films to mainstream, four-quadrant Hollywood movies. We want to cover the whole gambit.

Oberwelland: Our message is we’re open for business and we’re acquiring more. … But we are also getting back into production. We want to do both German and international films. Two weeks ago, we brought in Sebastian Zuhr, co-founder of Berlin’s Film1 production company and a very experienced German producer, to grow our in-house slate.

How much will you be willing to pay for single pictures? We’ve seen major price wars among German buyers at previous markets.

Oberwelland: The high pricing in the past few markets — and the fact that those prices were achieved or even exceeded — isn’t a reflection of the strength of the ancillary markets in Germany; it’s that there’s a scarcity of product out there and there are so many well-financed buyers in Germany. People are still willing to spend more money to acquire product at a price that everyone in the market believes is too high. Whether it makes economic sense remains to be seen. We think there’s going to be consolidation in the German market.

Eiff: It feels very much that because other countries like France, Spain and Italy have decreased in the international pre-sales market, sales agents are looking to make up the difference in Germany. You have companies consistently asking for 15 to 20 percent of the budget for German-speaking rights, and that is not sustainable.

What kind of movies are you looking to do?

Eiff: Over the past 15 years, 110 German-language movies have generated at least 1 million admissions, so about seven films a year. Of those, 50 percent were comedies and 25 percent were family entertainment films, so the smart money would say we should focus on those segments. Of course, we will do those kinds of movies, but we refuse to believe that only these two kinds of films can work. We believe good content will rise to the top, that original, authentic stories that allow people to be touched or inspired will be successful or have the potential to be successful.

Oberwelland: On the international side, we are in concrete talks about boarding two English-language films both set in Berlin, one being set up by a West Coast company, the other by an East Coast firm. One’s got a budget of about $28 million, the other $30 million. We are looking at films that have a German content angle, that can shoot here so we can be an on-site producer, but not solely. We’re also interested in investing in international productions where we see commercial potential.

What is the biggest challenge you face in rebuilding Tobis?

Oberwelland: Access to good content; that’s always challenge number one. From the production side as well as the acquisition side, access to good writers and good talent, so we can develop content. That’s what’s behind the STX deal, that’s why we’re open to similar arrangements with other producers and sales companies.

Eiff: We’re very enthusiastic and very ambitious. We’ve been given this wonderful jewel of a company and have the opportunity to redirect and reinvent it. Hopefully, we don’t come across as cocky, because we know how much success in this business also is a function of luck.