Majors set up shop in Germany

U.S. studios jockey to fashion local-language slates

Hollywood studios seem to be cribbing Kennedy lately as the majors rush to declare "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Every one of them, with the notable exception of Paramount, has or soon will have production operations in Germany to churn out local-language films mainly for the local audience.

Universal is the latest to land here, with a Berlin-based office to be run by Andrea Willson, a veteran executive who ran Columbia's German operations until the division shut down five years ago.

But Columbia parent Sony is coming back, announcing plans to boost its German-language output by turning its Berlin-based operation into the company's European production headquarters. Maike Haas, Sony's new vp international production Europe, will run the operation.

Disney, which has a long history of producing German-language fare, is revving up its local division to crank out family entertainment titles like the hugely successful local kids franchise "The Wild Soccer Bunch." The fifth "Soccer Bunch" film hits theaters March 21 in Germany.

Disney has made it clear that it intends to make room on its German release slate for local-language fare, bumping off more middling U.S. titles.

That won't be Universal's strategy in Germany, said Christian Grass, Universal Pictures International president of international productions and acquisitions.

"It's not about replacing titles on our slate, it's about complementing them with local productions," Grass said. "It is really about growing the market overall, especially in territories like Germany, which has a low per-capita moviegoing audience compared to other markets."

Fox also is looking to boost its take of the German theatrical pie by investing in homegrown productions. It signed an output deal with veteran Munich-based production house Claussen+Wöbke+Putz in 2006 for at least five feature films.

The first title to be produced under the agreement, Marco Kreuzpaintner's $12 million fantasy film "Krabat," hits German theaters in October.

The German invasion might not be over yet, either. Germany's leading independent production house, Constantin Films, is reportedly up for sale, with suitors thought to include Paramount.

Universal had considered buying the Munich-based group, which produced Tom Tykwer's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" and Uli Edel's upcoming feature on German terrorism in the 1970s, "Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex."

Local players are for the most part welcoming the major studios. Companies such as Studio Hamburg, UFA and Studio Babelsberg are eager to work with them, providing production facilities and services for their local operations.

German talent also welcomes the move.

"I think this is, in a way, about building bridges, which is what film should be about," said Armin Mueller Stahl, who is at the Berlin International Film Festival promoting his latest project, Heinrich Breloer's $21 million epic "Buddenbrooks."

"People sometimes forget that Germany has a long film tradition — originally it was German filmmakers like Fritz Lang who went to Hollywood to teach them how to do things."

But Stefan Arndt, head of Berlin's X Filme Creative Pool, is more skeptical.

"Good luck to them. We welcome the competition, it's always good for business," the "Goodbye, Lenin!" producer said. "But before we get too excited, let's wait and see what they do. (The studios) have tried this before, and it didn't always work out.

"First they have to prove they can do what we have been doing for years."