Audiences starting to tune out event films

Germany’s big-budget TV “event film” miniseries have had a remarkable run in recent years.

Reliably pulling in up to 12 million viewers for three- and four-hour films sliced into two or three parts, the mostly historical pics — which have tapped into a newfound interest among Germans in their stormy past — are showing the first signs of running into viewer fatigue.

Even though ARD has the most popular film of the year with “March of Millions” (11.2 million viewers; $14 million production budget) and ZDF took the crown in 2006 with 12 million viewers for “Dresden” (which was sold to 45 territories), the formula of a spicy fictional love story set against a historical backdrop has sputtered recently. Some folks in the local TV community fear the event-film genre may be falling out of favor.

Sat 1 got a hugely disappointing 5 million for its $11 million two-parter “Der geheimnisvolle Schatz von Troja” in March despite massive advance hype. That flop sent shivers through an industry that has been ratcheting up the number of the big-budget TV films in recent years following the astonishing success of earlier works — “Sturmflut,” “Luftbrucke” and “Das Wunder von Legende,” “Nicht alle waren Moerder,” “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger” and “Stauffenberg” — a few of which have also sold well to foreign territories, even getting cinema screenings abroad.

“There are simply too many event films now,” says Stefan Arndt, topper at X-Filme Creative Pool. “It would be normal to have an event film two or three times a year or four at most. Now it seems that almost every week there’s another on. It’s just too much.”

“Obviously, the level of quality has to be high and you have to be selective,” says Martin Moszkowicz, the Constantin board member in charge of production, who adds that event films will remain an important segment of the company’s output for the foreseeable future. The key to their success, however, remains in the storytelling.

“Evidently the viewers didn’t like the package (of ‘Troja’),” Moszkowicz says. “That’s what it comes down to.”

German filmmakers long avoided making dramas about their country’s traumatic Nazi and Communist dictatorships. But the genre became popular after Sat 1 scored a big ratings coup in 1999 with “The Tunnel,” a pic produced by Nico Hofmann based on a tunnel built under the Berlin Wall.

That was followed by other films such as “Speer und Er” and “Kein Himmel ueber Afrika.” Although many critics lambasted the minis and pointed out they invariably involve a woman forced to choose between two men, they’ve been consistent ratings winners until now.

“The key is to make the link between quality and what’s popular,” says Hofmann, widely recognized as the godfather of the genre in Germany. He often speaks of the need to “emotionalize” history to make it interesting for broader auds.

“I think the viewers have a longing for an identity with their own history and that was overlooked here for many years,” Hofmann says. “Before ‘Dresden’, for example, there had never been a film in Germany that showed the horrors of the war so graphically. That was our hope: to make a film that would spark debate and cut across generations.”

Dieter Wedel, whose dark multiparters about modern-day German corruption have long done well for ZDF, says he doesn’t think the popularity of miniseries is in trouble and hopes the recent setback for Sat 1 will serve as a long overdue wake-up call.

“The problem was too much kitsch with history,” he explains.

Moszkowicz says he did not think a flop or two would bring about an end to the popularity of the genre in Germany.

“There might be one or another that doesn’t work so well, but viewers like exceptional programming and see something that’s above and beyond the ordinary. These big-budget movies are very attractive to programmers.”

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