Jonas Katzenstein and Maximilian Leo had been running their boutique German art house shingle Augenschein Filmproduktion for nearly a decade when they decided they wanted more. Katzenstein, a former sound engineer, and Leo, a onetime film director with a single feature, and a few shorts and documentaries under his belt, had built up Augenschein — the word roughly translates as “apparition” — as a leading producer in the sort of foreign-language films that tour the festival circuit. In 2017, they had movies at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Venice — but those rarely got seen outside specialist theaters.
So the pair took the skill set they had developed — their ties to European talent and soft money financing — and applied it to English-language production. They put together German director Patrick Vollrath — an Oscar-nominated short-film helmer —with Joseph Gordon- Levitt for Vollrath’s directorial debut, the hijack thriller 7500, which Amazon snatched for the U.S. in May. Joining forces with L.A.-based XYZ Films and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, they co-financed and produced the sci-fi drama Stowaway, starring Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette, from director Joe Penna (Arctic), which Sony is releasing in multiple international territories and XYZ and CAA Media Finance are selling at AFM. Home, the directorial debut of German actress Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) starring Jake McLaughlin and Kathy Bates, is now in post.
From their modest offices in Cologne — the city where they were born and raised — Katzenstein, 39, and Leo, 40, spoke to THR about why their production model is perfectly suited to the challenges facing the indie film world.
Why did you go outside Germany for your first projects — with co-productions like Mina Djukic’s Serbian drama The Disobedient or the African crime drama The Boda Boda Thieves?
JONAS KATZENSTEIN We had to. We knew, as a new company started by a sound engineer and a director fresh out of film school, we wouldn’t get the top German directors for our first projects. But a top Romanian or Bulgarian director who can’t get money out of Germany to make his film, we knew we could help there.
MAXIMILIAN LEO European coproductions aren’t so lucrative. You can only do them if you love them or if you have such incredible taste that you regularly pick winners that break out. But it’s a great opportunity for young, hungry producers to make a name for yourself. Our projects were able to get made faster because they were farther along in the development. It took us three years to develop and produce our first German feature. But in that time we’d made four or five European co-productions.
Why did Paul Dano drop out of 7500?
KATZENSTEIN It was a scheduling conflict with Escape at Dannemora. We wanted to shoot in September 2017. We would have had to delay the shoot for six months. He said he completely understood and gave us the OK to recast. We pitched it to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he met Patrick and three days later said yes.
LEO It was a great stress test for our model — to make movies that are both culturally and commercially valuable. Since that first L.A. trip, we travel in a six-toeight- week rhythm — one or both of us — to do meetings, catch up. When this recasting happened, we already had the contacts to the agencies because of the face time we’d put in.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding you see from U.S. producers who want to work with Europe?
LEO Financing is completely different. In the U.S., it is done with bonding, with gap financing, with hard-equity money. We have the grants, the soft loans, that have completely different structures. The subsidies model takes time and it’s complicated, but so is the equity model.
KATZENSTEIN Or a studio deal.
LEO But the biggest difference is the influence of financiers. The hard-equity financiers that are so important in the U.S. have a lot more influence. Our model allows more creative freedom for the director.
What films work in your model and what don’t?
LEO It doesn’t have to be an original story but must have originality. Not just gore. But an elevated edge. We want to be the first point of call for those films. It can be a sci-fi film, it can be a survival movie. We can most help out if it can be shot on a big soundstage or on location in Germany.
KATZENSTEIN Stowaway is set in space. We shot it on a soundstage here in Cologne.
LEO The German model for that kind of films is unbeatable. It’s incredibly complex and difficult to explain. But at the end, don’t worry. You just have to trust us. We know what we’re doing.