German Film Sector Hopes for Rebound (Berlin)

BERLIN -- 2010 was not a good year for German cinema. After closing in on the Euro 1 billion ($1.35 billion) box office target in 2009, the German market slumped last year, with 20 million fewer admissions and a $75 million drop in box office.

Add to that the sudden death of top German producer Bernd Eichinger and the Chapter 11 filings of art house distributor Delphi and Berlin boutique producer Egoli Tossell (Carlos, The Last Station) and the picture looks grim indeed.

So thank god for Til Schweiger. The German director/actor/producer has again come to the rescue of the local industry with his new romantic comedy, Kokowaah, which is closing in on a $20 million draw just two weeks into its run and continues to rule over the local charts. The other guaranteed German box office draw – Michael "Bully" Herbig – has a new comedy, Hotel Lux coming out in October.

"It's just a fact that any year you don't have a film by Til Schweiger or Bully the box office goes down, the market share of German films drops and everyone gets worried," says producer Boris Schonfelder, who's currently in post on Tom Sawyer, a German-language adaptation of the Mark Twain classic, which hits theaters here in November. Sawyer might not hit the heights of a Schweiger film but response has been so positive ahead of the release, Schonfelder is already planning a sequel and hopes to begin shooting this summer.

"Kokowaah is working and if Hotel Lux works it will be a good year for the German market," says producer Nils Dunker, who is in Berlin drumming up business for his Lailaps Pictures shingle. "But the real problem is we are too dependent on too few talents and too few genres. It's basically comedy and children's films. Take a film like (Chris Kraus') Poll. It's an excellent film but it won't do much to increase market share for German movies."

That share took a nose dive in 2010, with German films accounting for under 17% of tickets sold in the territory. That compares with more than 27% in 2009. There were some hits. East-meets-West comedy Friendship, which Sony Pictures released locally, earned a respectable $14 million, but they were few and far between. Even critical successes such as Tom Tykwer's Three, Feo Aladag's When We Leave and Philipp Stolzl's Goethe! - all of which secured U.S. distribution deals – performed below expectations.

That hasn't stopped the U.S. majors from jumping in to the local market. Warner, Paramount, Universal, Fox, Sony and Disney all regularly release German titles and are increasingly getting on board productions in the development stage. That has squeezed smaller art house distributors – see the problems with Delphi – but the big local players, Constantin, Concorde, Tobis and Kinowelt, have survived. Majestic Film, a relative newcomer, has established itself on the art house scene with features such as When We Leave and will bow Tom Sawyer in Germany. Even Senator, long a problem child with mounting debt, moved into the black last year. The company's 2011 slate is its best in years, and includes Oscar-hopefuls The King's Speech and The Fighter alongside German fare including the Berlin Competition contender If Not Us, Who?

"Our strategy is to deliver quality, but still commercial art house movies, as you can see with (recent acquisitions) The King's Speech and Blue Valentine," says Senator distribution boss Peter Heinzemann. "We are able to finance the company now via traditional means, through our licensing and distribution deal with Universum and out of our own cashflow. We're not dependant on outside credit (any more)."

There is even good news for Delphi, which secured new equity investors in the form of Berlin group DCM and has already announced plans to release a local-language laffer starring Christian Ulmen (Berlin Blues).

Egoli Tossell has also found a new investor and says despite the insolvency proceedings production on its big-ticket titles including costume drama Ivanhoe and ambitious literary adaptation Hector and the Search for Happiness would not be disrupted.

Add to that one truly huge German production -- Constantin Film's 3D take on The Three Musketeers -- and you have a recipe for bounce back in 2011. If all else fails, the German industry can always rely on Schweiger. In addition to Kokowaah, he's also part of the ensemble cast of Simon Verhoeven's Men in the City 2, the sequel to a huge 2009 hit and will close out the year with Rabbit Without Ears 3, the latest installment in his own rom-com franchise.