Pubcaster NDR kicks tires on Viv U property

BERLIN — Vivendi Universal looks set to complete its pullout from the film and TV biz, with the long-expected sale of Studio Babelsberg suddenly on the horizon.

Pubcaster ARD’s northern affiliate NDR is eyeing the studio, which announced Wednesday it has come on board as a co-producer/financer of Kevin Spacey’s “Beyond the Sea.”

NDR will bundle Babelsberg’s activities with its own Studio Hamburg and Studio Berlin, according to Jobst Plog, ARD chairman and NDR general manager.

All of Germany’s major studios are losing money due to a glut of backlots and soundstages in Germany, as well as competition from Eastern Europe. NDR’s plan would cut costs while increasing productions at its studios.

Babelsberg topper Thierry Potok said NDR’s interest was proof of the studio’s standing in the film community, but added he and management are considering their own buyout of Babelsberg, which is 15 miles south-west of Berlin.

Babelsberg execs have long side-stepped Viv U’s impending divestment, but they were quick to stress the facility’s long-term future was safe.

An NDR acquisition of Babelsberg could be difficult because of increasing political pressure on Germany’s powerful pubcasters to lower costs. The move would also cut competition and usher in a near monopoly in Hamburg and Berlin — to the detriment of Berlin’s other studio, the privately-owned Berliner Union-Film, whose majority of productions stem from national pubcaster ZDF.

“At the moment, everybody is speaking to everybody. There are many possible solutions,” said Potok.

Another possibility is a partial acquisition of Babelsberg by NDR, as well as a management buyout, with the new shareholders joining forces and operating the studio together.

Babelsberg has seen a dramatic 20% upturn in business over the past year, and on Wednesday unveiled a E10 million a year ($12.7 million) film financing scheme backed by the German state of Brandenburg to co-finance projects shot at the studio.

Meanwhile, Babelsberg is putting up $6.1 million of the $25 million budget of “Beyond the Sea.”

Financing is being raised via a bond issued by Germany’s HypoVereinsbank and guaranteed by the state of Brandenburg.

“Without this state guarantee, Kevin Spacey would have taken his project to England,” said Henning Molfenter, head of production at Studio Babelsberg Motion Pictures.

Instead, Potok and Molfenter are now “Sea’s'” executive producers, with Spacey, Andy Paterson of Archer Street, Jan Fantl of Quality Intl. and Arthur Friedman producing.

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