Conglom is still a major player in Euro media biz

BERLIN — A big birthday party is taking place this year in Munich.

Bavaria Film is celebrating 90 years of tradition and 50 years in its current, postwar incarnation. Yet, for a company that has defined the country’s film and television industry for much of the last century, its focus is very much on the future.

Today’s Bavaria Film is a vast holding group, a conglomerate of more than 30 subsidiaries and divisions that span all of Germany and beyond. It includes production units Bavaria Filmverleih und Produktions and the recently established Bavaria Pictures; distribution and licensing arm Bavaria Media; Leipzig-based production house Saxonia Media; Berlin TV producer Askania; animation unit MotionWorks in Halle; Bavaria Media Italia in Rome; and Satel in Vienna.

In recent years, the company has focused largely on television production — a reflection of its shareholder structure, which includes leading pubcasters WDR, BR, SWR and MDR as well as ZDF, which holds a major stake in one of the group’s main production divisions.

Matthias Esche, who has headed Bavaria Film since 2006, is eager to attract more feature film production and is looking to expand the group’s operations in Germany and abroad by way of strategic partnerships.

While feature films play a relatively minor role in Bavaria’s overall operations these days, the company’s roots lie deep in the history of Germany’s motion-picture industry.

Bavaria evolved from a studio built in 1919 by Peter Ostermayr in Geiselgasteig, a Munich suburb. Its name was Muenchener Lichtspielkunst AG, or Emelka (from the pronunciation of its initials M.L.K.). Alfred Hitchcock shot his first feature, “The Pleasure Garden,” there in 1925.

After changing hands, it was rechristened Bavaria Film AG in 1932, but the company suffered an exodus of talent following the election of Adolf Hitler as chancellor the following year. It was later taken over by the government.

The Nazis merged Bavaria with the three other major production companies in Germany — Ufa, Terra and Tobis — to form the state-controlled super-enterprise known as UFI. After the war, Bavaria was initially prohibited by the Allies from producing its own films but was allowed to rent out its facilities.

The production company was privatized in 1956 when it was purchased and renamed Bavaria Filmkunst by a trio of banks (Sueddeutsche Bank, Commerzbank and Credit-Bank), chemical and photo giant Agfa, production company NDF and the Verleih Schorcht film distrib. The following year the new Bavaria bought out Schorcht and renamed it Bavaria Film-Verleih GmbH.

In 1959, the studio itself was reborn as Bavaria Atelier. Shareholders included Bavaria Filmkunst and regional pubcasters WDR and SDR (now SWR), paving the way for the group’s growth into a TV production powerhouse. (Bavarian pubcaster BR took a 54% stake in Bavaria Filmkunst in 1997 and in 2008 took complete control of the company, which retains a near 17% stake in the Bavaria group.)

In addition to TV movies and classic German series like “Raumpatrouille Orion,” a slew of classic Hollywood films shot at Bavaria from the 1950s through the 1970s, including Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” John Sturges’ “The Great Escape,” Mel Stuart’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” and even a couple episodes of “Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus,” specially produced for German TV.

In 1979, Gunther Rohrbach took the reins. Until his exit in 1994 he oversaw its transformation into a multimedia production and service company while playing a leading role in the production of such high-profile German films as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV mini “Berlin Alexanderplatz”; Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” and “The Neverending Story”; Peter Timm’s “Go Trabi Go”; and Joseph Vilsmaier’s “Stalingrad.”

Throughout the past decade, Bavaria has focused increasingly on TV, much to the chagrin of German film producers, who complain that rival Berlin currently offers the country’s only real studio for feature-film production: Babelsberg Studios in nearby Potsdam-Babelsberg.

Bavaria Film’s involvement with many of the country’s leading pubcasters continues to grow. In 2002, regional pubcaster MDR took a 17% stake in Bavaria; in exchange, Bavaria acquired stakes in eight MDR subsids, including majority shares in producers Ottonia Media, Saxonia and Motion Works. In 2007, ZDF acquired 50% of Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, a main TV production unit.

Hoping for commitment

According to Martin Moszkowicz, head of film and TV production at Constantin Film, Bavaria’s huge TV production volume has made it tough to shoot features there. Still, Constantin has lensed a number of recent pics at Bavaria, including “Downfall,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex” and the upcoming “Vicky the Viking,” but Moszkowicz says he’d like to see a greater commitment to film.

“We like Bavaria because it’s close by, but since they are mainly a television company and produce so many TV series, they only have one soundstage exclusively available for film,” Moszkowicz adds. “We would like (more) soundstage space. We need an alternative to Babelsberg, which at the moment is the only studio capable of accommodating a big production. Studio Hamburg, MMC in Cologne and Bavaria are all either too small or lack the necessary infrastructure.”

Esche says it’s tough to compete with Babelsberg internationally: “Berlin is seen as a very cool city and attracts young people and Hollywood filmmakers. And prices in Berlin are generally lower than in Munich.”

Indeed, Babelsberg has successfully positioned itself as a prime facility for major Hollywood productions such as Sony’s “The International,” which opens this year’s Berlinale, as well as MGM’s “Valkyrie” and Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Ninja Assassin.”

To boost local film production, Bavaria has launched Bavariapool Intl. Coprod., a production and financing joint venture with pubcaster-owned sales arm Telepool (whose shareholders include MDR and BR). Headed by former Bavaria topper Dieter Frank, Bavaria-pool is looking to produce and partner on domestic and international films.

Bavaria’s upcoming projects include “Hotel Lux,” about the upscale Moscow institution frequented by high-profile foreign communists in the old Soviet days, from director Leander Haussmann; a Richard Wagner biopic; and a feature about flamboyant 19th-century king Ludwig II of Bavaria.

“Hotel Lux” is the first project from an output deal inked last year between Bavaria and the Berlin-based Haussmann (“Berlin Blues”).

The company’s most recent productions include Heinrich Breloer’s box office hit “Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family,” an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; and “Shortcut to Hollywood,” a road movie from Jan Henrik Stahlberg and Marcus Mittermeier that’s premiering in the Berlinale.

“We are convinced that film, as a cultural and commercial commodity, must not be completely left to the capital. We are doing everything we can to advance film here and make sure that Munich remains a premier location for film production and services,” Esche says.

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