Studio's star is rising again

Tarnished by past, Babelsberg looks to brighter future

November 09, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

POTSDAM, Germany -- It's hard to imagine screen siren Marlene Dietrich ever being just another blonde standing at a bus stop. But when she first strode across the lot of Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam some 80 years ago, there was little separating her from other young, unknown actresses hungry for their big break.

But Dietrich didn't have to wait long, her breakout role coming in 1930's The Blue Angel. And she had Studio Babelsberg to thank.

The film rocketed Dietrich to international stardom, and she soon left for Hollywood. But the Potsdam studio she left behind soon lost its glitter. When Adolf Hitler came on the scene, Babelsberg devolved into his personal propaganda machine. Under communist East Germany, the studio had flashes of brilliance, but when the Berlin Wall fell and the studio came under private ownership, the losses mounted.

But in less than a year, Studio Babelsberg has made a comeback worthy of its star-studded past. With new management - and generous government subsidies that cover up to 20 percent of a filmmaker's costs - the studio is confidently looking ahead as it celebrates its 95th anniversary.

By the end of December, the studio will have hosted 11 films, including two big-budget Hollywood films shot simultaneously: Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, the World War II biopic of Count Claus von Stauffenberg's 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, and the Wachowski brothers' star-packed flick Speed Racer.

It's a far cry from a year ago, when the fledgling investor team of Carl Woebcken and Christoph Fisser saw just three films shot at the studio, with a major production pulling out at the last minute. "This is the only project-driven industry where you don't have [the work] set up two years ahead," said Woebcken.

Indeed, it has been a roller-coaster ride for Woebcken and Fisser, who bought the studio from Vivendi Universal in 2004 for a single euro. The studio's bottom line had been hemorrhaging since the Franco-American conglomerate took over in 1992. Despite pumping more than $500 million into it, Vivendi couldn't stanch losses of about $1 million a year.

After cleaning up the balance sheet and paying off the debt, Woebcken and Fisser posted decent returns in 2005, with such films as V for Vendetta, Aeon Flux and Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. But subsidies expected for 2006 were postponed at the last minute. With government subsidies in place this year, though, the studio heads expect revenue to soar to more than $145 million, with a pre-tax profit of about $5 million.

Babelsberg's rebirth has not only restored pride to a studio whose legacy includes Nosferatu and Fritz Lang's Metropolis - it has created jobs and income for the region, and returned much of the glitter lost long ago.

Getting back the glamour, however, is work. The studio's bread and butter is in big-budget films, and Babelsberg's executives start courting filmmakers at least a year in advance. Representatives travel to Hollywood four or five times a year to rub elbows with key players, research scripts and make their pitch.

The stakes are high: Of 10 projects up for grabs, they may bring home one. And none of the money spent on such trips returns to the studio unless it lands a film. "That's why the subsidy system is so important," Woebcken said.

Babelsberg doesn't just battle with other studios to land the big flicks, it also has to face down its own past. Between 1933 and 1945, under the direction of Hitler's propaganda guru Josef Goebbels, the studio churned out hundreds of films, including Leni Riefen- stahl's openly propagandistic Triumph of the Will. Goebbels' office was across the driveway from where Woebcken's office is today.

"We have to deal with that very openly," Woebcken said. But, he adds, "We are more like we were in the golden '20s," a not-so-subtle reminder that before Hitler there was Dietrich.

On this weekday, Cruise was filming away from the studio in downtown Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. Still, the film park's public attraction was doing a brisk business.

On "Berliner Strasse," an outdoor set that resembles a cobblestone street in pretty much any European city, one is transported to Warsaw as depicted in the award-winning film The Pianist, or Stalingrad in Enemy at the Gates.

Artists can re-create a Monet or Picasso for a scene. Tailors can whip up an outfit from any time period. And what can't be made can be outsourced or bought, studio executives say.

Such services aim to set Babelsberg apart. And the competition is fierce, especially in Europe, said Harold Vogel, author of Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis. Films that aren't dependent on location tend to go to cheaper locales in Hungary, the Czech Republic or Romania, Vogel said.

Babelsberg has been able to create a niche with animated films, by offering good sound stages and expert technicians. The Wachowski brothers filmed the Matrix trilogy here.

Wobecken and Fisser have made $11.7 million in improvements and are budgeting more.

"The studio has ramped up to a higher level than it ever was," Woebcken said.

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