Hollywood remains an elusive dream for many Germans who work in the film industry. Can government grants and marketing change the image of German cinema in the US?
Can a student-made film make it to Hollywood? Filmmaker Patrick Vollrath would know. His short film "Everything Will Be Okay" was nominated for an Academy Award this year. What started as a project at the Vienna Film Academy has industry professionals talking around the world.
"It's actually pretty awesome. This is the most important movie award in the world after all," Patrick Vollrath told DW, adding that he wants to keep a realistic outlook despite the spike in interest in his work.
"To be nominated for my work in Hollywood is an incredible feeling that will motivate me to go further," said Vollrath. "However, getting films produced remains a very difficult task."
Perhaps Germany's Minister of Culture Monika Grütters could lend him a helping hand?
Hollywood made in Germany
Between the federal government and its 16 states, Germany spends nearly 400 million euros ($435 million) annually on funding film projects. Part of that budget, however, benefits Hollywood in some direct or indirect way.
Patrick Vollrath is excited about his Academy Award nomination but knows that German films rarely get noticed in Hollywood
Steven Spielberg, for instance, produced large parts of his latest blockbuster "Bridge of Spies" in Germany in a co-production with Babelsberg film studio just outside of Berlin. The German Federal Film Fund (DFFF), run by the ministry of culture, as well as a number of state government incentives, made the deal even more attractive to the veteran Hollywood director.
In the end, the move paid off: "Bridge of Spies" garnered six Oscar nominations, including one for German production designer Bernhard Henrich. It only managed to win one award for best supporting actor Mark Rylance, who'd been up against some stiff competition from Sylvester Stallone.
Walk in the park with Spielberg
The movie featured several German actors alongside the lead role played by Tom Hanks, including Sebastian Koch and Burghart Klaussner, who said that working with Spielberg was "like a walk in the park."
Klaussner also stressed that American directors like Spielberg know that there are some outstanding actors in Germany, making it easy to lure them here.
Some German actors, however, prefer to try their luck in Hollywood instead of having Hollywood come to Germany. Christian Oliver (pictured above) has been living in Los Angeles for a number of years, featuring in big productions like "Valkyrie" - also produced at Babelsberg.
Vollrath's Oscar-nominated short film deals with a divorced father's devotion to his eight-year-old daughter
"Hollywood likes to take its productions to Germany, where it can benefit from these government grants. But Germany also benefits from the arrangement, with jobs being created and money being spent there," says Oliver.
A successful strategy of cooperation
Minister Grütters seems to be singing from the same hymn sheet. "There are a good number of American producers who like to come to Babelsberg, as it is such a recognizable brand with a location so close to Berlin and professional teams meeting international standards. Also, our grants are paid out in advance, which makes it easier to get productions rolling," said Grütters.
"Bridge of Spies," she said, is a good example for a strategy that seems to work. But that strategy is also increasingly aiming to export German movies to Hollywood to be distributed on the US market.
No enthusiasm for German films
Patrick Vollrath claims that more needs to be done in order to make German films more attractive to the US market. According to the young director, Hollywood executives "are not exactly feeling a lot of enthusiasm" for contemporary German film. Big names of German directors from the past like Werner Herzog or Volker Schlöndorff can still evoke a positive reaction there, he thinks, but "there's still a lot of opportunity to build on that."
Burghart Klaussner thinks that German film productions lack the resources to be noticed in Hollywood.
"Just look next door at France, where the annual budget for movie grants is 700 million euros ($760 million). We can't even keep up with France, let alone match the kind of budget that America is known for," Klaussner explained.
While German-speaking actors such as (Austrian-born) Christoph Waltz, Thomas Kretschmann or Christian Oliver seem to be gaining an ever-growing foothold in Hollywood, things seem to be moving much slower with the success of German movies. It's been a long time since classic German movies such as Volker Schlöndorff's "Tin Drum" or Wolfgang Petersens "Das Boot" celebrated worldwide success.
It is not for a lack of creativity or ingenuity on part of German filmmakers that there's still limited success for German cinema abroad, but rather predominantly a lack of proper marketing.
Balancing profit and art
Minister Grütters can learn a lesson or two from Hollywood and apply these back at home. Though she is convinced that the government's funding structures are on the right path, there is always some room for improvement to help German films compete internationally on equal footing, which is exactly what Grütters has stressed she wanted to achieve.
But she will also be the first to admit that "those big US productions come with such massive marketing strategies, which in themselves tend to require larger budgets than the entire budget of a movie made in Germany."
However, Germany is far from copying that model. It doesn't need to. Germany's strength lies in producing impressive independent productions, and that's what it needs to focus on.
"In Hollywood, it's all about investing money for a profit," says Patrick Vollrath. "But in other countries like France, Germany and Italy, the main focus is to make art. And that's our competitive edge, which will help up get ahead."