Wiedemann, Berg take risk with ‘Others’

Sony Pictures Classics at 20 - The Stories Behind the Movies

Rookie German producers Max Wiedemann and Quirin Berg took a big personal risk with “The Lives of Others,” the debut feature of their film school buddy Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

When shooting started, they realized the $2 million budget wasn’t enough to deliver the movie they all wanted to make. “We had huge overspends,” recalls Wiedemann. “It was not due to miscalculation, but because of numerous decisions where we decided to go for what the movie deserved to be, rather than what the budget said it should be.”

So they loaned the production several hundred thousand dollars from their own pockets.

“We were 26, and it was a lot of money for us,” says Berg. “It was total blind belief, but it did give us sleepless nights.”

The risk was key to their ultimate success. Not only because it meant they could do justice to von Donnersmarck’s vision, but also because the financial pressure forced them to hold out for a much bigger German distribution deal.

After several rejections, Buena Vista stepped up with an aggressive bid, which in turn meant the distrib had to go for a wide release to earn its money back. So instead of being confined to arthouses, “The Lives of Others” launched to international buyers at Cannes as a multiplex hit.

Sony Classics won a bidding war for the U.S. rights, and steered the pic to a foreign-language Oscar for Germany in 2006, and the highest-ever first-run gross by a Teutonic film in the U.S.

The pic continues to resonate in far corners of the globe. When Chinese poet Liao Yiwu defected to Germany last summer, he presented German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a pirated copy of “The Lives of Others,” complete with lovingly tailored Mandarin subtitles, to show how important the movie is in giving hope to China’s dissidents.

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