Teutonic tots tout teamwork

Soccer film franchise is taking in a 'Bunch' of cash

MUNICH -- It started out as a series of books, like Harry Potter. It became a much more successful franchise than anyone would have imagined, like "The Bad News Bears." And now, four films in as many years later, "The Wild Soccer Bunch" has become a Teutonic teen phenomenon -- and no one knows where it all will end.

"After every single movie, I've said that it was the last one," says Ewa Karlstrom, managing director of production company Samfilm. "But as long as each movie is more successful than the last, we have to continue."

The name "The Wild Soccer Bunch" is not a direct translation of the original German title. "Die Wilden Kerle," known as "DWK" in Germany, actually means something more like "The Wild Guys." "DWK's" fourth and latest incarnation, which came out in February and is still playing in some theaters here, could be described as "Mighty Ducks" meets "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" by way of boy band 'N Sync.

Like both "Bad News Bears" and "Mighty Ducks," the film's title is the name of a team who manages to be the underdog in every sequel no matter how many times they triumph. But aside from one other factor -- the presence of a girl who can really play -- all similarities between "DWK" and the American parallels end right there.

That's especially true of the franchise's ever-growing success. Each "DWK" movie has bettered the admissions of its predecessor by half a million tickets, a not-inconsiderable amount in a territory where reaching 3 million admissions confers blockbuster status. Distributor Buena Vista hopes to crack that magic number with "DWK 5," currently in production with a planned February release date.

Part of the reason for "DWK's" upward spiral is that the original target audience of preteen boys now includes kindergarteners as well as 16-year-old girls. "DWK 4" features everything from a sexy villainess to inventive expletives that approach the level of "Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods, Batman!"

As the original audience has grown up with the main characters, who are now getting ready to move on to older if not necessarily bigger things, author-director Joachim Masannek has brought in younger figures. Meanwhile, the brothers who head up the cast have become heartthrobs. Star Jimi Blue Ochsenknecht has been signed to a record label and has another Samfilm teeny-bopper vehicle in the pipeline.

"When the older characters kiss, the younger ones can say, 'Ugh!'" Karlstrom says. "That way, the little kids in the audience feel good about doing the same thing" -- while the teenage girls sigh.

"DWK" has also become a merchandising onslaught, with everything from "Lord of the Rings"-style jewelry worn by characters on-screen to bed sheets, leather jackets, backpacks, sneakers, water bottles and -- of course -- soccer balls.

But the most important reason for the franchise's success is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the original "DWK" logo, a black furry ball with a sharp-toothed grin, was commissioned years before the first film came out -- by Masannek himself, for the real-life kids' soccer team he was coaching.

That team, which really is called Die Wilden Kerle and really does have a girl who can play, was the inspiration for the original series of 12 books written by Masannek. It provided the basis of the first movie's cast as well.

"We didn't want the smooth actor types," Karlstrom says. "We didn't want little mama's boys, we wanted authenticity."

"He understands the kids, and the kids understand him," Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Germany vp sales and marketing Thomas Menne says of Masannek. "The kids are driving the demand to see these movies -- they're not family films that parents want to see as well."

Masannek's sons Marlon and Leon, who are on the real-life DWK team, play other characters in the films; the film roles of Marlon and Leon are played by Jimi Blue and his real-life brother Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht. Their father, Uwe Ochsenknecht, a German film star, also is in the "DWK" movies, so the franchise is quite the family affair.

It's a good thing too, because Masannek has been bringing out a "DWK" film a year for the past five years and needs his team to be up to championship snuff. "We always wait for the results of the last release before we even start thinking about the next film," Menne says.