North Rhine-Westphalia ramps up film efforts

"Henry of Navarre" received more than $3 million in financing from NRW.

Looks to take spotlight, business from Berlin

North Rhine-Westphalia is tired of being No. 2.

The western German state, bordered to the north and west by the Netherlands and Belgium, is the country's richest, accounting for nearly a quarter of German GDP. By population it is the largest, with nearly 18 million people. But when it comes to the media industry, NRW can't get any respect.

Berlin, with a robust budget and a fraction of the population, gets all the press. Studio Babelsberg brings in "The Three Musketeers," "Inglourious Basterds" and "The Ghost Writer." Hollywood junkets roll out their red carpet at Berlin's Sony Center, not in NRW's hub cities of Dusseldorf and Cologne. Most painful of all, Germany's talent pool -- directors, actors, writers, video game designers -- has drained out of NRW's universities to fill the loft apartments in and around Berlin.

"NRW used to be Germany's media capital and under the last government it lost that status," NRW new media minister Marc Jan Eumann said after taking office in the summer. His goal is clear: to put NRW back on top.

To be fair, the state is in better shape than its public image would suggest. NRW is home to many of Germany's largest media companies. In the northeast corner of the state there's Bertelsmann, owner of RTL Group, Random House and BMG. Down in the south in Bonn is Internet and mobile phone giant Deutsche Telekom. In between are the headquarters of cable powerhouse Unitymedia, the Germany operations of games giants Electronic Arts and Ubisoft and both Germany's largest public broadcaster (WDR) and its strongest commercial network (RTL).

That concentration of capital and media know-how has drawn business -- particularly from TV production companies looking for commissions. Sony set up shop in NRW in 1995, to produce German-language sitcoms for the local market. Most of them -- including the blue-collar comedy "Alles Atze," family comedy "My Life and I" and procedural spoof "C.I.S." -- for local network RTL.

Other international players to set up shop include Dutch giants Endemol and Eyeworks, the U.K.'s Granada and FremantleMedia, whose Cologne-based subsidiary Grundy Light Entertainment, producers of German versions of "X Factor" and "Pop Idol," is Germany's No. 1 TV production house. Just last year, two of the world's fastest-growing independent production companies -- Elizabeth Murdoch's Shine Group and France's Banijay Entertainment-- rented office space in Cologne.

"NRW is a quick bang for buck for TV production firms," says Sam Davis, former head of Endemol's German Fiction Operations, who now runs his own Cologne-based production company, Rowboat Film. "These companies follow the dollar and a cost-benefit analyst is going to show this is the best location. Between WDR and RTL you have a huge concentration of clients and downstream people. You have a network of talent here and the infrastructure that's been built up around these networks."

"You can see why Elisabeth Murdoch and company need to be here," adds Martina Richter, who founded and runs German media confab the Cologne Conference. "Germany is the world's second-largest TV market and, in Germany, NRW is the largest TV market."

But even the Cologne Conference, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, shows the change in NRW.

In 1991 when Richter, with partners Petra Muller and Lutz Hackmeister, launched the international TV festival, NRW was the next big thing. RTL Television, Germany's first commercial TV network, had recently moved its headquarters to Cologne. The state government in Dusseldorf, in an effort to build an industry to replace NRW's closing coalmines, had begun to pump money into the media business.

It set up the Filmstiftung NRW to subsidize TV and feature film production, built studios and sound stages and extended generous loans to almost any creative company willing to set up shop along the Rhine river. NRW's media industry, previously restricted to WDR, Bertelsmann and a few regional newspapers, exploded.

The Cologne Conference reflected this, showing the best of German TV, much of it made locally. But this year, not a single homegrown production can be found in the festival's top 10 lineup of premium small screen drama. Instead, the festival is dominated by U.S. and U.K. productions including HBO's New Orleans-set "Treme," AMC's "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead" and BBC crime drama "Luther."

It seems that while Shine, Banijay and other format-focused production companies are still coming to NRW, much of the fiction talent has left.

Ten years ago, virtually every German comedian, gag writer or on-air entertainer of note lived in Cologne. With a few exceptions, such as Stefan Raab, they all now live in Berlin.

"The past few years, Berlin has just sucked up the talent. Directors, writers, on-air personalities, they went in droves," says Thorsten Krages, a Cologne-based reporter with German media trade paper the Kress Report.

It's a similar story with the film industry. The Filmstiftung NRW is country's richest regional subsidy body, doling out about $40 million in production financing and other support annually. Few big German productions get made without its help. But most of Germany's A-list actors and directors call Berlin or Munich home.

Berlin has successfully branded itself as Hollywood's foreign backlot -- with on-location shoots of "Basterds," "Valkyrie" or "The International." NRW has backed some of the most prestigious titles on the festival circuit last year but has gotten little credit for it.

Semih Kaplanoglu's Berlin Golden Bear winner "Honey" was co-produced by Cologne's Heimatfilm and received a large chunk of its financing from NRW. Israeli anti-war film "Lebanon," winner of the Golden Lion in Venice last year, was a NRW co-production, as was this year's Palme d'Or winner, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with its NRW-based producers the Match Factory and GFF. Tom Tykwer's latest, the Venice competition title "Three," received cash from NRW, as did Feo Aladag's "When We Leave," Germany's official candidate for the 2011 foreign-language Oscar.

"A lot of it is an image problem; people don't realize how many films are made here, or made possible here," says Muller, the new boss of the Filmstiftung NRW . "Take a company like ('Three' producers) X Filme. They are seen very much as a Berlin production house. But what nobody mentions is that they wouldn't be around if it weren't for the support they get out of NRW."

"My rich uncle" is how Lars von Trier described the Filmstiftung NRW, which has backed every project von Trier has made since 2000's "Dancer in the Dark." For "Antichrist," the travel-shy Danish director decamped to the region, shooting the bulk of the psycho-shocker in the wooded region outside Cologne. For "Melancholia," a sci-fi melodrama starring Kiefer Sutherland, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, von Trier shot in studios in Sweden but still received nearly $200,000 in NRW production subsidies thanks to the efforts of the film's Cologne-based co-producer Bettina Brokemper.

The Filmstiftung NRW has traditionally had a soft spot for European auteurs. Ken Loach has regularly used NRW to shore up financing, for films like "Bread & Roses," "Sweet Sixteen" and Palme d'Or winner "The Wind That Shakes the Barley." Wim Wenders, NRW born and bred, can rely on the Film Board to kick in for any new project as they did, to the tune of $850,000, for his 3D dance documentary "Pina."

The Filmstiftung NRW is keeping up that tradition, backing the Juliette Binoche-starrer "Sponsoring" from Poland's Malgoska Szumowska, Istvan Szabo's "The Door," featuring Helen Mirren or Margarethe von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt." But, increasingly, it is also going after bigger projects, ones that in the past would have been Studio Babelsberg's by default.

David Cronenberg shot much of his Freud/Jung biopic "A Dangerous Method" -- starring Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley -- in MMC Studios in Cologne. The bulk of Brain Grazer-produced "Vivaldi" -- a drama about a forbidden romance between the legendary Italian composer and his protege and starring Jessica Biel and Ben Kingsley -- is set to shoot in NRW after picking up $2 million in Film Board subsidies. And early next year Nicole Kidman and director Lasse Halstrom will arrive to film sex-change drama "The Danish Girl."

" 'The Danish Girl' is set in Copenhagen, Paris and Dresden but we will be able to do a lot here, either in MMC studios in Cologne or the surrounding area," says Ulf Isreal, head of Senator Film Cologne and a co-producer on the project. "We'll shoot the Paris scenes in Belgium. It's just next door but has locations that you couldn't find anywhere in Germany."

Israel admits he set up Senator Films' Cologne office in part to tap the Filmstiftung NRW subsidies. But he says what really drew him in was the state's financial and technical infrastructure.

"The advantage of NRW isn't just the support you can get through the Film Board or [gap financier] NRW. Bank, it's the location in Europe," Israel says. "It's being close to Belgium, where you can access the tax shelter funds, being close to the Netherlands and France. You've got access to locations, and financing, you won't find anywhere else. MMC Studios are top quality. And, unlike some locations, they are easy to get to. In Cologne, everything is nearby. You have very good, very personable crews. I don't know why more film producers don't take advantage of the setup here."

Attracting more shooting days is one of Muller's goals but it's not the primary one. Muller -- and NRW's -- plans are more ambitious. By building on the strength of the region's TV, cinema and media tech companies, NRW wants to turn itself into a hotspot for everyone from feature film producers to mobile application programmers to Internet entrepreneurs.

NRW Media Minister Marc Jan Eumann has made the games industry a main focus. Cologne scored a coup last year when it secured Gamescom -- Europe's premiere video game trade fair. More than 250,000 people attended the 2010 edition, making the event the largest of its kind worldwide. About 500 games companies from 33 countries made the trip to the Rhine to show off their latest titles.

Eumann kicked off this year's Gamescom with the announcement that state support for NRW's gaming industry -- its media cluster fund, worth about $12 million a year -- would be added to the budget of the Filmstiftung NRW, making the body a one-stop shop for creatives.

"He's essentially expanding the classic subsidy system for film and television to the whole digital industry," says Thorsten Krages. "Startups and game designers will have access to subsidies in the same way 'old media' producers have in the past."

Balancing the demands of entrenched interests, particularly the big local broadcasters, with the needs of Internet startups, will be a tall order. But Muller, and NRW, feels up the challenge.

"The pioneering sprit from back in 1991 is here again," Muller says. "The politicians are behind this, my staff at the Film Board is motivated and ready for change. It's a great starting point. My mind is on fire."
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