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We travel to Potsdam, to discover why Studio Babelsberg is attracting international productions with its mix of history, technology and top-class facilities.
While Los Angeles and London may currently have a lock on the majority of big-budget film productions, Studio Babelsberg—located just outside Berlin—is fast becoming the type of slick, one-stop shop that could make a serious dent in their business. And when you consider a spiritual legacy that includes the first sound film, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the more recent likes of Roman Polanski and Quentin Tarantino, you can see why.
German film has made great strides in recent years, with the international success of films like Oscar-winner The Lives of Others and The Counterfeiters, together with 2011 domestic box-office smash Kokowääh, emboldening the industry. Yet rewind to early 2004 and it was a different story, with Studio Babelsberg at the peril of parent company Vivendi’s financial unravelling. Cue two knights in shining armour, in the form of producers Charlie Woebcken and Christoph Fisser, who came riding through the gates to spark a revival.
Since then, they have painstakingly rebuilt Studio Babelsberg’s reputation to such an extent that the Potsdam enterprise can match the likes of the UK’s Pinewood and Shepperton for big-budget international productions eyeing a European base.
Eike Wolf, head of corporate communications and publicity, was buoyant about the studio’s future prospects when he gave movieScope a rare look behind the scenes at the bustling facility.
“We are the biggest studio complex in Germany focusing on film, with the others focusing on TV productions,” Wolf explains. “A Hollywood production will use 40-to-50 per cent of our capacity and we have 24 stages here in Babelsberg, 16 of which we own.
“As we are a co-producer on the international productions, we can structure it so there is a discount if our services are used as a whole, whether it is art department, props, costumes, whatever. It is the old Hollywood studio model.”
German film taxes and subsidies have been generous to money-wary producers looking to squeeze every last drop out of a budget, immediate tax deductions on blockbuster fare enticing the majority of productions to Studio Babelsberg this past decade. And what gave Germany an advantage over countries with similar set-ups was the fact that you did not need to shoot locally, or even employ local cast and crew, just share in the profits once the copyright was locked. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was one such film to harvest money this way, cushioning the production expense despite the hefty lawyer fees involved. Additionally, the role of television broadcasters, who co-fund with the Deutscher Filmförderfonds (DFFF), has shrunk in recent years, so the studio management team lean more on the tax and subsidy incentives on the financial side.
Wolf believes that the studio’s flexibility to expand or contract the workforce in a volatile worldwide financial situation also gives them an edge over hungry rivals like Prague’s Barrandov Studios, Ciudad de la Luz in Alicante and Rome’s Cinecittà Studios.
“At one time we have had up to 3,000 people working on the lot, then on the other side you have to be flexible as in two weeks time we might have just 80 people working here,” he says. “You have to be able to breathe in the film industry.
“The East European studios have done a lot of marketing and have good incentive systems. Ciudad de la Luz in Spain is very expensive and has been going a few years now, but they haven’t had a big international production as they don’t have the track record. The Pianist, Enemy at the Gates and Æon Flux were very important for us as they put us on the radar of Hollywood again. What has happened here in the last six years, we have showed everyone we have the right people, stages and production services to handle international productions. Production security is huge.”
But Wolf also acknowledges the value of local productions. “The last two or three years, more and more German productions are coming here. We need the international big-budget films, but German films are important too.”
With various parts of the production process currently outsourced in film, Studio Babelsberg is also extremely well-placed to cater for budgets large and small thanks to a comprehensive costume, props and set-design service. Not only that, outside of the usual post-production services such as editing and sound, special effects company Nefzer Special Effects is housed smack bang in the middle of the lot, providing cutting-edge SFX right on site.
“Chicken with Plums was a great production recently from Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, the co-directors of Persepolis, with Mathieu Amalric and Isabella Rossellini,” Wolf reveals. “We filmed 100 per cent of it here with sets built to look like Tehran.”
Another film shot completely on the lot is Roland Emmerich’s return to native shores with Anonymous, an intriguing departure from his usual popcorn fare like 2012. And Studio Babelsberg also caters for 3D filmmaking: Paramount’s 3D retelling of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, has recently wrapped, and filmmaker Paul WS Anderson is using the facility’s technology to shoot his upcoming spectacular, The Three Musketeers.
“Constantin Film Produktion are an important partner for us now as they are preparing Pompeii with Paul WS Anderson,” Wolf explains of the huge number of productions heading to Studio Babelsberg over the coming months. “The Wachowski Brothers are also preparing Cloud Atlas here for the autumn.”
As well as looking to the future, Studio Babelsberg has a solid legacy to draw upon, and the team will be celebrating their 100th anniversary at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival with a broad selection of films through the ages.
“Our history is important, especially for the American filmmakers,” Wolf says. “They really know what happened here. Quentin [Tarantino], the first time he went into the Marlene Dietrich Halle, he knew exactly what movies were produced there. He touched the wall and it was very, very important for him to feel the karma and magic.”
Having ridden out the recession in admirable style, the sky really is the limit for Studio Babelsberg, as they press on with their ambitious plans without forgetting the graft and glamour that laid the foundations all those years ago. •
For more information visit www.studiobabelsberg.com