PARIS — European film used to be about catching the latest Fellini, digging the latest Truffaut, unearthing an Antonioni. The cult of the auteur was all pervading, and the pics made were generally on a small and intimate scale. It didn’t leave much room for larger Euro pics, with high production values and a strong national identity.
Clearly here was a niche between arthouse and mainstream that needed exploiting — a breach which the London-based company Working Title filled to stunning effect in the mid-’90s when it produced the quintessentially English romantic comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Despite its pervasive Britishness, or indeed because of it, “Four Weddings” proved to be a big crossover hit, grossing more than $50 million in the U.S. alone.
The trickle-down effect did wonders for Working Title, which carried on where it left off with Anglo-centric prestige pics like “Elizabeth,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” all of which performed exceptionally at home and abroad. But elsewhere in Europe, in countries like France and Germany, the potential for exploiting this crossover niche has only recently begun to be explored.
David Kosse, now president of Universal Pictures Intl. (Working Title’s parent company), was an executive at Polygram before it was merged into Universal, when it distributed “Four Weddings” in 1994.
“I think ‘Four Weddings’ worked so well because it was the world’s first look at (screenwriter) Richard Curtis’ humor and sensibility,” Kosse says. “Working Title has this unique ability to find and nurture talent and develop and create stories with themes that are universal in their appeal.”
Likewise, German producer Bernd Eichinger, who wrote and produced “The Downfall” (2004), about the last days of Hitler, has tapped into a universality with his latest German-language pic “Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex,” about a German terrorist group, the Red Army Faction (RAF), which wreaked havoc in the late 1960s and ’70s.
“I’ve already sold the rights for ‘Der Baader-Meinhof’ throughout the world, which is remarkable,” says Eichinger, who wrote the film’s script and will release the pic in Germany next year through his company, Constantin. “Perhaps it’s because, like Germany, there were terror attacks in countries like France, Italy and the U.K. around the same period. Obviously it’s something all these countries can relate to in their past. Added to the fact that we are living in times of terror right now.”
“Der Baader-Meinhof” could become the latest in a line of German pics to successfully cross over by exploring historical episodes, which, while specific to Germany, have piqued curiosity abroad by addressing universal themes like the defeat of totalitarianism (“The Downfall”), filial devotion (“Good Bye Lenin!”) and government surveillance (“The Lives of Others”).
In France, Ilan Goldman is enjoying the afterglow of successfully producing the Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose,” which has grossed almost $100 million worldwide, $11 million of that in the U.S.
“I like to produce films where there’s already some kind of built-in awareness,” Goldman says. “Usually I either buy the rights to a well-known book or I make a film where there’s a pre-existing awareness for the subject, like with Piaf.”
Goldman’s next French-themed pic, “Vel’d’Hiv,” will tackle one of the darkest pages of Gallic history. The new film, which will shoot next year, is to be directed by Goldman’s wife, Roselyne Bosch, who made her debut as a helmer with “Animal” in 2005. It will show how 30 Jewish children, out of some 12,000 rounded up by French police, managed to escape being deported to Auschwitz from France in 1942.
Like “La Vie en rose,” Goldman intends for “Vel’d’Hiv” to be made in French, not English. It is a decision Goldman arrived at several years ago when he produced the English-language “Vatel” starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman.
“I think ‘Vatel’ was beautifully made, but it was such a French subject and the fact that we made it in English distanced us from our subject,” he says. “If I could do it again, I would make it in French, because I realize, now, that you can be universal by being specific, because if you’re clever enough, everyone can recognize themselves in this specificity.”
In both Germany and France, it’s only recently that producers like Eichinger and Goldman have begun to tackle contemporary history with the kind of medium-sized budgets and well-known actors needed to make an impact on audiences.
“It took a number of years for these types of films to get made, because it’s hard to report about a time when you’re too close to it,” Eichinger says. “It was the same with Vietnam for America. Oliver Stone wrote the script for ‘Platoon’ in 1978, and it took him 10 years to mount the movie. I told him he was lucky, because if it had come out in 1980, it would have been too fresh in people’s minds.”
Certainly in France, old wounds are taking a long time to heal. “Especially if it’s a period film, you have to fight a lot for the money,” Goldman says. “As soon as you want to do something different, people are scared. If you really want people to leave the house and go to a theater, you have to offer something unusual. But as soon as you go for something unusual, people are not very confident. Fortunately, you only need one person to say ‘OK,’ and you can put your budget together and do it.”
The common factor uniting Eric Fellner & Tim Bevan (who run Working Title), Eichinger and Goldman is that they have all been in the production business a long time. Working Title’s first pic was “My Beautiful Laundrette” in 1985, Eichinger produced “The Wrong Movement” in 1975, and Goldman’s first film was the Columbus biopic “1492: Conquest of Paradise” in 1992.
“It takes a long time to build a company like Working Title before it starts to yield something,” Kosse says. “Polygram originally bought the company in the early ’90s, and there were lots of fits and starts before they became the company that they are today.”
What: 20th European Film Awards
When: Dec. 1
Honorees: EFA international achievement award, Michael Ballhaus; EFA lifetime achievement award, Jean-Luc Godard; inaugural Prix Eurimages co-production award, Veit Heiduschka (Wega Films) and Margaret Menegoz (Les Films du Losange)