Studio exex allay worries

Babelsberg's Woebcken and Fisser have plan for future

BERLIN — Studio Babelsberg’s new investors are eager to calm the waters after Vivendi Universal, in its haste to dump the facility, triggered a storm of protest that appeared to put the future of the legendary studio, and future international projects to be shot there, in serious question.

After meeting with employee reps and production execs July 21, Babelsberg’s new toppers, Carl Woebcken and Christoph Fisser, did just that. And they’ve made it clear that international film productions will remain Babelsberg’s focus under their management.

“Studio Babelsberg is not just a business venture for us,” Woebcken says. “It’s overwhelmingly an affair of the heart. Babelsberg is a legend, but it’s also a business. If the legend is to survive, it has to stand on solid legs.

“That’s our mission: We want to make Babelsberg fit for the future so that in 10, 20 or 50 years there will still be a living legend and not just a dead myth.”

Key to their success will be not money but rather strategic partners. As part of the deal, Woebcken and Fisser, who paid a symbolic E1 for the facility, secured a $22 million investment from Viv U to help keep the loss-making studio operational for the next two to three years.

That sum, which includes a few million for existing liabilities, is measly compared to the $50 million that a recent study by McKinsey & Co. says is necessary for the studio to reach profitability in the next three years. The ambitious Woebcken and Fisser are aiming to break even in just 12 months.

The duo declined to go into further details, and as a result left Babelsberg insiders wondering exactly how they plan to pull it off.

Sources close to the deal say strategic partners could come in the form of several private film funds eager to use the “Studio Babelsberg” label and foresee a pooling of resources to create a “superfund” to attract international productions to the studio.

While neither Woebcken nor Fisser is well known in Berlin or Babelsberg, both have been in the German media business for years. Woebcken, a former finance exec at animation outfit TV-Loonland, has for the past two years run Berlin Animation Film, a $100 million private media fund launched in 1999 by Dresdner Bank and Greenlight Media. Prior to Woebcken’s arrival, it was plagued by such severe production difficulties that Dresdner was forced to take it over completely and set up its own production company to operate it.

As programming head at BAF, Woebcken is serving as co-executive producer, with producer John Williams (“Valiant,” “Shrek 2”), on the upcoming CGI-animated film “Happily N’Ever After,” which touts the oral talents of Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sigourney Weaver.

Fisser has headed SAS Studio Atelierbetriebe Schwabing in Munich for 12 years.

Despite lingering questions, Babelsberg’s rank and file have expressed relief. “They have presented a reasonable plan and we are optimistic,” says Jan-Peter Schmarje, the studio’s employee committee chairman, who had led a vociferous protest against the sale which included letters of complaint to both German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Viv U topper Jean-Rene Fourtou — until he actually met the two investors.

Babelsberg production exec Henning Molfenter, who has become the studio’s point man for international productions, says he’d be happy to stay on at the studio, but will wait to discuss the matter with his new bosses. Molfenter’s Babelsberg-related credits include co-producer or associate producer on recent pics “The Constant Gardner,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Pianist.”

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