Smaller distribs see opportunity in wake of big 2003 losses

Berlin — There was a surfeit of bad news for Germany’s independent market last year as the country’s second-biggest independent distrib, Senator Entertainment, as well as fledgling label Ottfilm went belly up. The box office downturn continued, with revenues sinking a further 11.5% in 2003 to $1.1 billion. Even No. 1 indie Constantin Film suffered a $12 million net loss.

2003 STATS
Top film: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (Warner Bros.; $53.9 million)
Top indie: “Good Bye, Lenin!” ($45.3 million)
Total B.O.: $1.014 billion
Indie B.O.: $214 million
Total releases: 359
Indie releases: 247
“Alexander” (Constantin)
“Oliver Twist” (Tobis)
“The Machinist” (3L)
“Samaria” (Rapid Eye)
“Walk on Water” (Arsenal)

While the bigger independents are trying to recover from the financial blows suffered in 2003, some feisty new players are taking their shots at glory.

“The best time to get in is when others are weak,” says Werner Wirsing, topper of newly founded 3L, which plans a minimum of 15 releases this year, exploiting rights from its parent company, DVD label E-M-S. “Difficulties are there to be overcome.”

“2004 is a great opportunity,” concurs Stephan Holl, topper of Asian and Bollywood specialist Rapid Eye Movies. “There’s a real chance for smaller distributors to position themselves. Demand is there.”

The market is still difficult, concedes Magnus Vortmeyer, marketing chief at Tobis Film. “But things are going great for us. We never overestimated, buying the right films at the right time.”

Even Constantin CEO Fred Kogel expects “2004 to be our turnaround year. ‘Lost in Translation’ was a good start and we have some great titles. I’m especially optimistic because we spent last year consolidating and dumping liabilities.”

Yet with more and more Teutons staying home and opting for TV, the B.O. downturn continues to get worse. The upside, however, is that they’ve turned their living rooms into home cinemas.

Last year the number of DVD households doubled to 16.2 million (45% of total TV households), which in turn boosted DVD sales nearly 50% to $1.3 billion.

As far as pay TV goes, Premiere is still the only game in town and it will take time for newbie Kabel Deutschland to establish itself.