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To Global Audiences, Local Stars Are Becoming Box Office Superheroes

Matthias Schweighofer
Mathis Wienand/Getty Images

Here in Berlin, Europe’s coolest city, the art scene is audacious, the night life nonstop, the mayor is gay and filmgoers’ idea of a superstar is Matthias Schweighofer. Not Pitt or Cruise, but Schweighofer.

Having made the rounds of the galleries and clubs, I decided to investigate the Schweighofer phenomenon. After all, he represents a new force in the movie business — a local star in a universe of overpaid international stars. And he seems to be having a lot more fun.

I dutifully drove to the little town of Teetz, and spent time on a set where Schweighofer is shooting a comedy called “Der Nanny.” I watched a car get demolished and some kids exact sweet revenge on their self-indulgent dad. Matt, as he’s called on set, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, sprinting between duties as star, director, writer and producer. “Matt is everywhere,” said production partner Dan Maag. “And he does things his way.”

The career of Schweighofer, an ingratiating and energetic young man of 33 (he looks 23) is riding the expansion of local product in the fast-changing global marketplace. As box office totals for tentpole movies continue to fade in many territories, local films have grown to account for at least 30% of admissions in Germany, and represent 30% in France, 90% in India, 75% in Japan, and 60% in South Korea. Each territory has its own Schweighofer, and here’s the rub: These local stars have more freedom and less pressure than their international compatriots.

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Schweighofer, for example, who has mirthful blue eyes and a mop of blonde hair, can decide what films he wants to make, where and how. He acts and directs, and even devises his own marketing campaigns. His past four films have been hits in Germany. His budgets are in the $10 million range, his shoots may total 48 days, with mostly non-union crews. On “Der Nanny,” his set is an elegant 19th century castle in what used to be East Germany.

Funding for his films comes from Warner Bros.’ German subsidiary, run by Willi Geike, and from a range of government subsidies. Pre-sales to television and other media cover downside risk. His movies can explore any topic short of civic insurrection.

Sipping broth at his lunch break, Schweighofer confides that his favorite American filmmaker is Clint Eastwood, but he admires Jim Jarmusch as well, and thought Zach Braff did a great job with “Garden State.” The son of thespians, Schweighofer has been acting since the age of 13, and is so famous in Germany that he can’t roam the streets or go to a restaurant without stirring a commotion of autograph seekers (there are no paparazzi in Germany).

Though the Teuton economy is the most robust in Europe, the average German spends one third as much on consumer goods as the typical American. Germany’s thrifty president, Angela Merkel, is causing angst in France and Italy by demanding that those nations emulate her balanced budgets and practice her tenets of fiscal austerity.

Though conservative by nature, Germans covet perverse comedy. Schweighofer taps into this mood. In his new movie, he plays a fervid real estate developer who tears down old neighborhoods while failing to notice that his devious children plot to drive away a succession of nannies. The film combines raucous comedy with social commentary and a teary ending.

Schweighofer doubts that the movie will play outside Germany; few German pictures do. But while coveting his autonomy, he still yearns to go to Hollywood some day and seek out a bigger audience — mindful that the pressures will be greater and the controls tighter.

For now though, there is, to be sure, something wonderful about being local — especially in freewheeling Berlin.