German radio dramas being mined

Plays on airwaves spawning films with built-in fan base

COLOGNE, Germany -- For a U.S. audience, Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" sums up the popular image of radio drama as a quaint but antiquated format. These audio-only plays may have been hugely successful in the early decades of the 20th century, but they now seem as relevant to the modern world as silent film or 8-track tapes.

Not so in Germany. Audio dramas such as "The Three Investigators," "Bibi Blocksberg" or "Hui Buh -- The Goofy Ghost," developed either from radio shows or books, are hugely successful. While devoted fans still listen on the radio to their favorite programs, the real market is in sell-through.

Audio dramas shift millions of copies every year -- most on good old-fashioned audiocassettes.

Now German producers are discovering that the audio drama can also be a lucrative source of material for feature films.

Studio Hamburg is producing a trio of "Three Investigators" features back-to-back and has already sold the U.S. and German rights to Buena Vista International. Regional giant Bavaria Film has struck gold with two "Bibi Blocksberg" films and has a third in the works. Independent production powerhouse Constantin has had similar success with "Hui Buh," the film version of which stars Germany's top comedian, Michael "Bully" Herbig.

"Audio dramas come with a built-in fan base, which makes them very appealing as a source of material," says Tomy Wigand, director of recent release "TKKG and the Mysterious Mind Machine," a boy's detective story adapted from a hit radio serial. "The fans seem to split into two categories: the kids who buy and trade these cassettes and the thirtysomethings who loved these stories when they were young and still listen to them."

In her book "Cassette Kids," German author Annette Bastian traces the source of this local phenomenon to the early 1970s, when German public broadcasters started producing audio dramas for children.

"There was a whole generation (in Germany) that was raised on these stories," Bastian explains. "For kids, the appeal of a cassette recorder, as opposed to the television set, is that it isn't under parental control. You listen to these radio plays with your friends or alone in your room. You collect the cassettes and pass them around in the school yard."

Now the 1970s cassette kids have children of their own. According to Uschi Reich, producer of "TKKG" and the "Bibi Blocksberg" films, children's radio dramas offer the perfect mix of popular stories with built-in parental approval.

"The films do well in the theaters and are truly amazing sellers on DVD," Reich says. "They also generate a lot of repeat business, as fans want to see them over and over again. But audio dramas aren't the easiest material to adapt. You have to take an all-audio format, usually with a story that runs 45 minutes, and turn it into a 90-minute, visually exciting film."

For Wigand, one of the main challenges in adapting "TKKG" was to appeal to an audience that didn't know the original radio drama while still pulling in the purist fans.

"Even though these are audio-only dramas, the fans have very specific images in mind of how the characters should look and how the stories should be told," Wigand says. "The challenge was to keep the spirit of the old radio stories while making something that works as a movie."

For "The Three Investigators," Studio Hamburg was careful to get the die-hard fans onside. The filmmakers worked closely with Sony BMG, which produces and distributes "Investigator" audiocassettes in Germany, at all stages of production. The actors who voice the three main characters in the radio series have cameos in the films and they will direct the dubbing of the English-language "Investigator" franchise into German.

"These voice actors are stars in their own right among 'Investigators' fans," Studio Hamburg spokes-man Felix Neu-zer-ling says. "They go on sold-out tours where families pay to see them re-enact these stories onstage. For thej German version of the film, it was important for us to capture the feeling and sound of the radio plays. These guys know it better than anyone."

If there is a drawback to adapting radio-style drama for the screen, Reich says it lies with the material itself, which is designed to appeal to very young children. "These stories are designed for 4- to 10-year-olds," Reich says. "Older than that and you lose your audience. When boys turn 12, they want James Bond, not 'TKKG.'"

Another question is whether the audio dramas can survive in Germany as local kids, even very young ones, spend more time watching TV, surfing the Internet and playing video games. Will the current boom also be the genre's last hurrah?

"I think that's a very interesting question, and one I'm not sure we can answer at the moment," Bastian says. "I think children's radio plays still have a very good chance of competing in today's media jungle.

"The audio market is incredibly strong and will stay so for many years to come. But I don't know what will happen with the next generation, if CDs and DVDs will replace audiocassettes. In 10 to 15 years, things could look very different than they do today."
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