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It was a rare sight. Rola Bauer, the ultra-organized, calm-in-the-storm boss of Tandem Communications, was flipping out.
“I got a call. A third of our funding for (TV miniseries) ‘Ring of the Nibelungs’ had fallen through,” Bauer recalls of that evening five years ago. “I just lost it.”
The British government had just changed the law governing its tax-rebate scheme, making TV productions like Tandem’s “Nibelungs” ineligible. Making matters worse, an investment group had tied its backing of the €20 million ($29.4 million) fantasy two-parter to approval of the U.K. tax credit. Preproduction on the mini had already started in South Africa but suddenly the money was gone. The production, perhaps even the company, Bauer and Tim Halkin had set up in 1999, was at risk.
“I got on the phone with Cape Town and I told them the truth,” Bauer says. “We gave them some money to hold them there and buy time while I tried to find the missing financing.”
“Nibelungs” was the biggest thing Tandem had ever taken on. Based on the Teutonic legend that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” saga, it featured Kristanna Loken, German star Benno Furmann and a pre-“Twilight” Robert Pattinson.
It was virgin territory for the company. Until then, Bauer and Halkin had focused on smaller, more manageable productions — license-fee financed series (“Relic Hunter,” “Largo Winch”), TV movies (“Superfire” for ABC, CBS’ “Final Run”) and miniseries (Syfy’s “Dune”) typical of a boutique operation.
Which is not to say Tandem was ever entirely typical. For one thing, they have a sales arm, rare for a small independent. By handling product from third parties — including Lionsgate, Mandalay, Stephanie Germain Prods. and Starz Media — they kept in direct contact with TV networks worldwide — “Kept our ear to the marketplace,” to use Halkin’s phrase.
“(The distribution arm) gives them unique market insights as producers,” says Ridley Scott, director and principal of Scott Free Prods., a production partner with Tandem. “The needs of the market flow into all of their production decisions, making their productions broader and more viable worldwide.”
Tandem’s location — Munich, not New York or L.A. — also made it unique. From the start, the company tried to bridge the gap — cultural, structural and financial — between television in Europe and the U.S.
A typical Tandem project involves partners in three or four countries. “Relic Hunter,” for example, had broadcasters and co-producers in Germany (Pro7, Beta Film), France (M6, Gaumount) and Canada (Chum TV, Fireworks) as part of its financing mix. A typical Tandem production also mixes North American and European talent onscreen — boosting a project’s international appeal.
“Nibelungs” had plenty of partners and a mid-Atlantic mix of talent. Still, this one was different.
“For the first time, Tandem was acting like a mini-studio,” says Jonas Bauer (no relation), at the time an affiliate producer, now partner at Tandem. “We developed the project, put together the financing ourselves and then went out and sold it.”
Financing for TV projects is usually fairly simple and, for the producer, relatively risk-free. A broadcaster, maybe two, come on board, pay a license fee and the show gets made.
On “Nibelungs,” the financing was fiendishly complex and closer to that of an independent feature film than a TV mini. The tangled web included German and Scottish banks, broadcasters in Britain (Channel 4), the Netherlands (Veronica) Germany (Sat.1) and the U.S. (Syfy) as well as private investors and other components — like the British government’s tax credit. Take away one piece of the puzzle and the whole thing would come crashing down.
In the end, Rola Bauer got German film fund VIP on board and by “deferring everything so we could lock down a cash budget,” the production went ahead.
And “Nibelungs” delivered, particularly in Europe, where it was a ratings hit for Syfy U.K. (34% market share), France’s Canal Plus (18.5% share) and TF1 (29%) and Spain’s Telecinco (23.3%). In Germany, “Nibelungs” was the most successful movie of the year, attracting more than 7 million viewers on each of its two nights for Sat.1, representing a 30% share in the key 14-49 demographic, more than double the channel’s average.
The production’s success gave the little company from Munich a reputation as a partner you could count on. “(Rola) knows how to produce, finance and sell her productions,” says Mark Pedowitz, former president of ABC Studios and now a senior adviser to Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney. “When she sets her mind to do something, it will get done.”
Tandem traded on this reputation to upgrade its distribution slate, joining with Stephanie Germain and Mandlay Television on Lifetime’s successful “Nora Roberts” franchise of TV movies; with Scott Free on the Emmy-nominated “The Company” and with Stan Brooks on the upcoming series of crime movies based on the novels of Patricia Cornwall.
Tandem’s in-house productions also took a step up — with special effects-laden “Lost City Raiders” (Syfy/Pro7) and “Impact” (ABC).
“We made no money on (“Nibelungs”), it’s a simple as that,” Rola Bauer says. “But we have no regrets. We are very proud of it. It helped the company evolve.”
Over dinner in Budapest, Bauer recalls the “Nibelungs” struggle. She’s just returned from the set of “The Pillars of the Earth,” a $40 million, eight-part, limited series that makes the next step in Tandem’s “evolution.”
The stakes are just as high. Tandem is deferring heavily to get the adaptation of Ken Follett’s epic novel about the building of a cathedral in the 12th century onto the small screen.
But “Pillars” could have a much greater impact. If Tandem pulls it off, the project might transform the way event television gets made on both sides of the Atlantic. Produced with Scott Free and Canada’s Muse Entertainment, “Pillars” has all the above-the-line credentials of a network or HBO event series — the cast includes Ian McShane (“Deadwood”), Matthew Macfadyen (“Robin Hood”), Rufus Sewell (“John Adams”) and Donald Sutherland — but without a U.S. or U.K. network onboard. For a project of this size, that’s unheard of.
” ‘Pillars’ is an entirely new model,” says David Zucker, president of Scott Free. “For the first time, we’re putting together a high-quality, American production without relying on a U.S. or U.K. network to anchor it. It’s much closer to the financing models of the indie film world, where you can take properties and fund them without having to rely on the U.S. marketplace to dictate what can be made.”
If the financing for “Nibelungs” was complex, “Pillars” is positively byzantine. Some, but by no means all, of the money comes from banks in Germany (DZ Bank) and Canada (Fidec). Another chunk comes from broadcasters including the CBC, Pro7, Spain’s Sogecable, Hungary’s TV2 and ORF in Austria. Soft money, including Hungary’s 20% tax credit, plays a role, as do a variety of other soft money sources.
“Lost City Raiders”
Producers and broadcasters around the world are watching “Pillars” carefully. With advertising down about 20%-30% in most territories and networks slashing budgets for high-end drama, Tandem’s outside-the-box model has an obvious appeal.
“There’s been a real sea change in the way broadcasters do business,” Zucker says. “Media conglomerates that paid for everything and used to want to control everything are now looking to share the risk. U.S. buyers are saying, ‘If you can bring us a certain level of product for a lower cost, we’ll be eager to do it with you.’ That’s a big change from even a year ago.”
“This could start a revolution,” “Pillars” producer John Ryan says. “Everyone has been scared to try this — to produce without a U.S. network on board. If this is a success a lot of other people will be taking a chance.”
Tandem itself is taking a big chance on “Pillars,” but Rola Bauer says she’s learned some lessons from “Nibelungs.”
“I felt during ‘Nibelungs’ that we weren’t really set up for it. We could only focus on the one project, we couldn’t do anything else,” she says. “This time around, while we are doing ‘Pillars’ we are developing and selling at the same time. We are building up our infrastructure.”
That has meant more specialization within Tandem. Partners Rola Bauer, Halkin and Jonas Bauer continue to develop and produce their own projects, but each also has cross-corporate duties that play to his or her strengths. On “Pillars,” for example, legal whiz Halkin wrote hundreds of contracts while Jonas managed the currency hedging — ring-fencing the budget to prevent the volatility of the Hungarian Forint from sinking the project. Bernhard Schwab, who was named international sales head in 2007, handles the day-to-day distribution duties.
Tandem added another layer of management infrastructure in September when Malisa Scott, longtime managing director of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in Germany, joined the company as COO and partner.
“With someone like Malisa on board, I’m hoping we can get to the next level in terms of organization,” Rola Bauer says.
That next step could be applying the “Pillars” financing and production model to long-running series. Tandem already has several projects online, including crime drama “Night and Day,” developed at TNT, and two new shows it’s developing with Scott Free.
But first Tandem has to finish “The Pillars of the Earth” and, more importantly, sell it. If ‘Pillars’ is a success, Tandem could help reinvent the rules of the global television.
Five things you didn’t know about Tandem:
> Tandem’s name comes from Rola Bauer’s husband, Ludwig, who said the company’s balancing of U.S. and European interests was “like a tandem bicycle”
> Number of languages spoken by Tandem principals: 14
> Best description of Rola Bauer: “A sweet pit bull.” (“Pillars” screenwriter John Pielmeier)
> Ratings for “Ring of the Nibelungs” in 2004: 15.1 million viewers over two nights
> Number of years taken to secure the rights for “The Pillars of the Earth”: 8
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