At this year's Media Forum in Cologne, directors, actors and PR experts discussed how the image of German film in the U.S. is changing from gloomy subject matter for a select few to happier, more mainstream fare.
Wolfgang Becker's film "Good-bye Lenin!" was a hit in the U.S.
The heart of global cinema beats in Hollywood. Romantic tearjerkers, teen comedies, or colourful cartoon adventures -- mainstream movies from across the Atlantic have long been standard fare in European cinemas. But while blockbusters by Spielberg & Co. are guaranteed to be big draws at German box offices, the road leading in the opposite direction is much rockier.
Films from "Old Europe" are typically seen in the U.S. as sophisticated and demanding. Something for the die-hard film buff rather than an evening's entertainment for popcorn-munching audiences. German films have a particularly difficult time of it. While French films are considered fanciful and Italian productions passionate, German films are the heavyweights of European cinema, with the reputation of being melancholic and gloomy.
That's perhaps one of the reasons why the market share for German films in North America last year was just a meager 0.15 percent -- the equivalent of 2.2 million viewers.
The lighter side of cinema
Franka Potente starred in the fast-paced Tom Tykwer film, "Run Lola Run," which hit cinemas in 1998.
But the situation is changing, and has been ever since German director Tom Tykwer's fast-paced romantic thriller, "Run Lola Run," became a hit in the U.S. With its innovative plot twists and aesthetic appeal, the movie proved that not all German productions are automatically weighty and intellectual.
They can have a good balance of pace and narrative, and still be fun to watch -- just like the East-meets-West comedy, "Good-bye Lenin!" Wolfgang Becker's film was a surprise success in the U.S., long surpassing the $4 million mark. And the kitchen-comedy "Mostly Martha" made twice as much money in the U.S. than in the domestic market.
German directors such as Wolfgang Petersen and Roland Emmerich are currently taking Hollywood by storm with their productions "Troy" and "The Day After Tomorrow."
A lasting trend?
So does this trend have a future, or is it just a short-lived phenomenon?
"I hope that this upsurge will be sustainable, because European stories are of interest to foreign viewers," said Michael Schmid-Ospach, business manager of the film foundation in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
The fact is that there are still huge budget differences between European and American productions. The average German film costs about the same amount to make as a small American independent production. And while in Germany the director plays a large role in a film's success, in the U.S., it's star power that counts. "A director only gets the green light from the studios when a famous star signs on, because an A-list celebrity like Tom Cruise ensures approval of a $100 million budget," said German actor, director and producer, Til Schweiger.
Film festivals can also contribute significantly to a film's success, said Michael Weber. He is the business manager of Bavaria Film International, which markets German films such as "Good-bye Lenin!" to the U.S. "Festivals and big competitions help set the course for further success," he said. More than
German director Caroline Link was honored with an Oscar for the best foreign movie for her film "Nowhere in Africa."
anything else, an Oscar nomination can work wonders for a film, as was the case with Caroline Link's film, "Nowhere in Africa," which won the best foreign language film award in 2003.
Instead of bringing in the usual $1 - $2 million, "Nowhere in Africa" rang up more than $6 million in U.S. ticket sales. An extensive advertising campaign also helped drum up interest in the German wartime drama.
Marketing is everything
American PR expert Nichola Ellis recommends that German filmmakers learn from U.S. marketing know-how. A catchy ad campaign that sticks in the public's mind greatly increases a film's recognition factor, and with it, box-office sales.
Unfortunately, such campaigns are in short supply in "Old Europe." European filmmakers typically look at how much money they've got, and then create their advertising strategy accordingly. "The Americans have a completely different way of thinking about it," stressed Ellis. "They come up with a promising campaign first, and only then calculate how much money they'll need to get it off the ground."